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Performing Arts Center acts as economic catalyst

Posted February 27th, 2014

  • THELMA, the Fond du Lac's performing Art center
Kevin Miller, Executive Director at the performing arts center in Fond du Lac spoke at DECI's Annual Awards Dinner Feb. 26.

For many years, what residents and guests to downtown Fond du Lac noticed most was not a beautiful park or thriving stores. It was vacant buildings and 'for sale' signs that lined the streets.

But with the purchase of the 90-year-old former Masonic Temple in 1995, the newly-formed Fond du Lac Arts Council, without knowing its scope, was about to change the landscape and economic future of the city in a big way. The group renovated the Masonic Temple, turning it into The Fond du Lac Arts Center.

"The impetus for creating an arts and entertainment district in Fond du Lac started with the premise that the Art Center was completely surrounded by vacant and for-sale property," said Kevin Miller, executive director of the Arts Center.

Kevin Miller, Executive Director at the performing arts center in Fond du Lac spoke at DECI's Annual Awards Dinner Feb. 26.

Speaking to nearly 100 people at Downtown Eau Claire, Inc.'s Annual AwardsDinner on Feb. 26, Miller explained how the arts have become the engine for economic revitalization in downtown Fond du Lac. He said if you look at the city today, you'll find that all of the once-vacant properties have been either redeveloped, or removed in order to facilitate the expansion of the Art Center.

"Our block is now home to an affordable artist housing project, an upscale destination dining facility, a new parking lot, and the expanded Art Center. Immediately across the street from the now-named Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, a vacant building has been purchased and will become a high-end steak restaurant." Miller said one block to the west, the entire block is blighted due to an abandoned movie theater. "This block will now be redeveloped into a boutique hotel catering to corporate business clients."

Miller said there has been more than $15 million worth of projects injected into downtown Fond du Lac in the last year, and more are on the way.

He said those who didn't necessarily like change still may have their opinion, but reaction from business and civic leaders, members, donors, and artists has been tremendous. Center membership is up from about 250 members, to now nearly 1,300 in one year. Schools and arts organizations are getting involved and playing large roles at the Center.

Miller said his Center is now considered one of the key factors in the city's economic development plan. He said there's a direct correlation between a state that creates jobs and a state that invests in the arts. "Take it a step further, communities with significant companies need to be able to attract and retain top talent. Without a vibrant art center and other arts related activities, not only will it be tough to recruit individuals to live in your community, but what is there to attract visitors?"

These issues, Miller said, become critical for a community to be vibrant, relevant, and healthy-economically and culturally.

Another key area to consider is the rapidly increasing workforce of educated Millenials, Miller said, which are 20 and early 30-somethings. "The job is not the most-important factor in recruiting Millenials, but the vibe of the community they are considering relocating to. If nothing is happening, they're not coming."