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October 24, 2014

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Funding issues prompt new plan for $45 million makeover of Reed Whipple Cultural Center

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Steve Marcus

The Reed Whipple Cultural Center on Las Vegas Boulevard North, part of the Cultural Corridor, in downtown Las Vegas Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012.

Cultural Corridor

The Reed Whipple Cultural Center on Las Vegas Boulevard North, part of the Cultural Corridor, in downtown Las Vegas Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012. Launch slideshow »

For two years, the theaters and art studios of the Reed Whipple Cultural Center have sat in limbo, its weathered beige walls in a state of flux since city budget cuts forced its closure in the wake of the economic downturn. Supporters are hoping to inject life into the 50-year-old building, once a hub of the city’s performing arts scene, to create a modern facility at the heart of downtown's Cultural Corridor that will house a dozen local arts organizations.

Doing so, however, comes at a cost — approximately $45 million in necessary renovations and construction.

The first attempt to revitalize the center was led by Las Vegas Shakespeare Company last year when it acquired the first right to buy the building, 821 Las Vegas Blvd. North, with plans to transform it into a dedicated community venue for its professional productions. But that effort fell apart after a year of delays and bureaucratic reshuffling during which efforts to raise its capital objective failed.

Now its sister company, Nevada Repertory, is leading a second go at the project, relaunching it as the Cultural Corridor Theater Center, with a goal opening date of September 2015. The board behind the project, spearheaded by Nevada Repertory President Michael Gill, has introduced a vision in which the CCTC will function as an independently-operating nonprofit to provide a dedicated rent-free space for 12 nonprofit arts organizations in the Valley, including Nevada Repertory, Academy of Nevada Ballet Theater, Next Wave Opera, Las Vegas Youth Orchestras and Rainbow Company Youth Theater, which was based out of the Reed Whipple Center for 35 years.

The CCTC board presented its initial plan as part of an annual update to the Las Vegas City Council this month. Bringing together performing arts nonprofits otherwise in competition for space, funding and other resources holds the potential to be transformative for the valley’s performing arts community, this time with the added hope that including more stakeholders will broaden the project’s appeal, allowing for a greater chance to meet a daunting funding goal in a city not typically known for its support of the arts.

“The truth is, we didn’t have great success at raising money as just one theater company. It was a little philosophical and a little bit financial,” Gill says. “When we actually sat down and did a calendar on how many weeks we’d need to use stage for the Shakespeare Company, we found out it was only 28 weeks of the year. That got us thinking that maybe there is a bigger and better mission here to address.”

The building, noted for its distinct ’60s modern design, was opened by the LDS Church in 1963 as a stake center and recreational facility. It was sold to the City of Las Vegas in 1970 and renamed Reed Whipple Cultural Center, serving as a home for arts nonprofits like Las Vegas Youth Orchestra from 1972 to 2011. The property was acquired and reopened by Las Vegas Shakespeare Company in 2012.

Renovation plans for the CCTC include expanding its northern side to create a new lobby and offices for the Rainbow Company and refurbished theater and classroom space for year-round teaching and performances. The new venue also will host two to three commercial tenants, including Rosemary’s Cafe, with the goal of generating income to allow the CCTC to be self-sustaining.

Karen McKenney, cultural supervisor for Rainbow Company Youth Theater, says a return to the space would be transformative for the performing arts nonprofit, which was forced to reduce its seasonal performances and class sizes after relocating to Charleston Heights Arts Center, where it competes for space and resources with dance, music and art classes.

“We’re looking forward to collaboration with other [arts nonprofits] in that center. To have a space that is just for Rainbow opens up so many opportunities to provide more options to the community. Students will have the opportunity to work alongside professionals in workshops. I just see infinite possibilities,” she says.

Though Nevada Repertory is aiming to close the building for construction in the third quarter of 2014, the CCTC must first overcome a number of hurdles before it can consider breaking ground.

While the nonprofit has already secured 50 percent of its capital fundraising goal, the CCTC’s success will ultimately depend on being incorporated into downtown’s Centennial Plan, which according to Gill would make the theater eligible for grants, city funding and other benefits that would greatly reduce construction costs.

Though a meeting for public comment on recalibrating the Centennial Plan to include areas like the Cultural Corridor was held Thursday afternoon at Fifth Street School, there is no timeline set as to when the City Council might vote on the plan’s expansion.

Gill says doing the project without support from the Centennial Plan is part of why the original vision failed and that the CCTC’s budget has been designed with the plan’s benefits in mind.

“We can’t start construction until we’re included in the [Centennial] Plan because the financial advantages are just astronomical. We’ve made a conscious decision to stand down on construction until the project gets approved,” he says.

Until then, Gill is content to wait.

“There’s no emergency to get this open, but when we get it open, the business plan has to totally make sense,” he says. “We created a building that’s self-sustaining so that after construction, we will never have to go out and fundraise for it again. To get that part right is really, really important.”

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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