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Ideas in Action: Chatfield Center for the Arts Brings New Life to Community

By Claudia Hoffacker

Concept drawing of the Chatfield Center for the Arts.What one thing can boost economic development, preserve important historic buildings, and improve a community’s quality of life? Well, for one Minnesota city, the answer is the Chatfield Center for the Arts!

Those are the three primary goals of a project the city embarked on in early 2010, when officials acquired a recently vacated set of school buildings and began to transform them into an arts center. It’s still a work in progress, but they’ve already begun hitting these targets.

Photo of Chatfield Center for the Arts, a traditional brick building campus.The city leaders thought, “If you want to be a community of vitality and sustainability, you need to have __________________________ Top: The vision for the
completely renovated Center.
Bottom: The Center for
the Arts today.

__________________________

things that go beyond a golf course, a softball field, and a bowling alley, things like that,” says Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young. “You need a place where people can explore their creative side.”

The acquired buildings, which sit right on Main Street, include a 1916 school building, a 1954 classroom building, and the 1936 New Deal-funded Potter Auditorium. City leaders did end up demolishing the classroom building, but they’ve made more than 40 significant improvements to the remaining property.

While many renovations are still on the to-do list, the Center for the Arts is already hosting numerous performances as well as private events and community group meetings. Young estimates that over the last three years, the center has had an economic impact of around $6 million (based on money spent on operations and improvements, ticket and catering fees, dollars spent at area businesses, and jobs created). The project was the winner of the League of Minnesota Cities’ 2013 City of Excellence Award in the topical category “Promoting Economic Development.”

Getting buy-in
The community of just under 3,000 people has always embraced the arts, so when the idea for the arts center first came up, Young thought it would easily fly. But it wasn’t necessarily an overnight success.

“Well, for a town our size, an arts center is kind of a big deal,” Young says. And some thought the idea was a little too lofty.

“So, it’s been interesting to watch how the initial attitude was one thing, and then it changed to ‘Let’s embrace that baby and see what we can do for the lives of the people in our community,’” Young explains.

Joel Young and Mike Tuohy sit on the Potter Auditorium stage while
a new set is being built.It’s like anything in a small town,” says Mike Tuohy, one of the biggest champions of the arts center and now chair of the Center for the Arts Advisory Committee. __________________________________________________

Right: Joel Young and Mike Tuohy sit on the
Potter Auditorium stage while a new set is being built.

___________________________________________________

“You take your time until it’s their idea.” As a former city councilmember and current Chatfield School Board member Tuohy knows a little bit about getting community buy-in. He was part of a small group that rallied to make sure the school building was preserved, and he thought the arts center idea was perfect.

For Chatfield—which was anointed “Band Town USA” by the Legislature in 1978—an arts center truly does seem like the perfect fit. There is a long history of community theater and band music here. So once the decision for the arts center was made, the community came together to make it happen.

City-wide effort
The city has dedicated $290,000 to the project in addition to administration and oversight, but it has been a collaborative effort. The first partner, of course, was the Chatfield Public Schools, which donated the buildings along with $275,000.

The schools also provide programming as students continue to perform at least three shows a year in Potter Auditorium.

The city has also partnered with the Chosen Valley Community Foundation, which serves as the center’s fiscal administrative agent.

Another primary partner is Wit’s End community theater company, a largely volunteer group that provides a wealth of entertainment. Wit’s End had always done its summer production at Potter Auditorium. But with the Center for the Arts, the group has been able to expand its offerings.

Black folding chairs wrap around an informal stage at the Chatfield Center for the Arts'  fully renovated American Legion Room.In addition, the Chatfield Center for the Arts Advisory Committee was created to oversee the operations and improvements of the buildings. The seven-member committee is made up entirely of volunteers who do everything from planning events to fundraising to managing improvement projects. __________________________________________________

Right: The center’s fully renovated American Legion
Room is perfect for intimate concerts.

___________________________________________________ What’s notable is that the majority of people involved in making this center a reality are volunteers. At least 11 area groups—including the Chatfield Boy Scouts, Lions Club, and Public Schools Community Service Class—have made significant contributions.

“It’s so nice to be able to have plays, music, and other events right here in your own community,” volunteer Vicki Dietz said recently while building the set of the Wit’s End production of “Spamalot.” “I just hope we can continue to get all the renovations done and bring even more shows here.”

Regular activities
The facility functions not only as an arts center, but also a community center where groups can have meetings and events. For example, space in the building is leased out for yoga and other exercise classes.

The center’s American Legion Room also hosts a regular music program called the Chosen Bean Concert Series, which includes a variety of folk musicians performing intimate concerts.

The offerings have been well-received so far, and more than a few folks have been won over. For example, one long- time Chatfield resident recently shared that she thought the arts center was “the stupidest idea” she’d ever heard, Young says. But now she and her husband are Chosen Bean Concert Series members and are among the center’s biggest fans.

Future plans
The arts center project, which is in phase two of four, will come to fruition when the building is completely modernized and retrofitted into a multi-use facility.

To take it to this next level, it will need to move beyond a mostly volunteer effort. It will get to that point, Young says, but it’s good to see how residents are already enjoying it.

“A lot of people come [into the center] for a variety of reasons. There are easily over 10,000 visits a year,” Young says. “That means that people are out and about, and when they’re out and about, they’re connecting with each other. And that can only be good.”

Claudia Hoffacker is web content and publications manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: choffacker@lmc.org or (651) 215-4032.

Read the September-October 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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