Performing arts facility a possible centerpiece for Vista Field

By Kristi Pihl, November 9, 2014, Tri-City Herald

A performing arts center just might be the catalyst needed to spark the redevelopment of Vista Field.


It’s an idea that has been tossed around as Port of Kennewick officials and community members brainstorm a foundational anchor site for the massive, 113-acre property in central Kennewick.


“This is the ideal spot,” said Justin Raffa, Mid-Columbia Mastersingers director and member of the Vista Vision Task Force. “This is sort of the geographic center of the Tri-Cities and surrounding communities.”


Vista Field represents a generational opportunity for the Tri-Cities because the open land is so close to the Three Rivers Convention Center, the Toyota Center, the Columbia Center mall and the Columbia River, said Rich Cummins, Columbia Basin College president and task force chairman.


The task force’s 16 members have talked about creating a downtown-like area that is walkable, such as limiting car access in some places and locating parking areas on the periphery of the development, Cummins said. They’ve also tossed around the idea of having different districts focus on different aspects, such as arts, restaurants and innovation. Commercial buildings could have housing on the top levels.


City of Richland officials have discussed building a pedestrian bridge over Highway 240. Port officials say that would be an opportunity to connect Vista Field with the riverfront, the Sacagawea Heritage Trail and the Reach Center. Trolleys also could be set up to link Vista Field to existing downtown areas.


The port is in the process of creating a master plan for the former airport, which was closed in favor of redeveloping the land into a mixed-use development. Consultant Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. was hired for up to $383,000 to develop a realistic, affordable plan that includes how to implement and pay for it. The public is invited to participate in the planning process this week.


People go to Portland, Seattle and Spokane because there are a variety of fun and interesting things to do in a fairly compact area, said Kirk Williamson, a task force member. Vista Field can provide that for the Tri-Cities.


“This isn’t just a collection of new buildings and new streets,” said Larry Peterson, the port’s director of planning and development. “We are trying to make a unique space.”


The port likely will support the horizontal improvements, such as creating roads and public spaces such as plazas, Peterson said. But the private sector will have to take the development vertical.


Port Commission President Don Barnes said, “It’s a tremendous opportunity and at the same time a tremendous obligation.”


A performing arts center represents a challenge all on its own.


The nonprofit Arts Center Task Force has been trying to find a public agency to partner with to build the performing arts center, Raffa said. The nonprofit is prepared to raise money to cover operational costs, but doesn’t have the resources to provide all the capital funding.


“We think that the private-public partnership is how this is going to work,” said Raffa, who is a member of the nonprofit’s board.


The Three Rivers Campus is a good model, Raffa said. The convention center is owned by Kennewick Public Facilities District and the Toyota Center and arena are owned by the city, but they are managed by VenuWorks.


Raffa doesn’t see the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District as a likely way to get the performing arts center built, he said. That group considered a performing arts center as a regional project, but decided to go with an aquatic center. Voters more than a year ago turned down the regional group’s proposal to build the aquatic center using a sales tax increase.


It’s possible CBC might be part of a performing arts center, perhaps handling the management side for the facility, Cummins said.


The port lacks the resources to build a performing arts center, but Peterson said they can reserve space for one.


The Arts Center Task Force is considering hiring a consultant to determine what a performing arts center would need to fit the demands of local arts groups and traveling shows, Raffa said. That would give the group a good idea of the cost involved in building the center.


Many touring shows won’t come to the Tri-Cities because the Windermere Theatre at the Toyota Center doesn’t meet their minimum requirements for a facility, Raffa said.


There is a long, complicated history of failed efforts to build a performing arts center, Raffa said. But the effort now includes a lot of new blood and a mix of artists and business people. The Mid-Columbia Symphony, the Mastersingers, Mid-Columbia Ballet and Mid-Columbia Musical Theatre are behind the effort.


“We joke that we are homeless, but we really are,” he said.


Richland High School is mediocre for current needs, Raffa said. Nonprofits pay to use it and teachers get first pick, as they should. But that means arts groups can’t schedule events more than a year in advance.


“There are so many cool things that we want to do that we could do if we had an appropriate venue for it,” he said.


Vista Field would be ideal because of how central it is, but Raffa said the arts center task force is open to other locations as well.

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