The town board unanimously approved May 17 a $3.1 million design for the future Fuquay-Varina Arts Center at the corner of Fuquay Avenue and Vance Street.
After a months-long process that included soliciting resident input, Town Manager Adam Mitchell recommended one of the more conservative proposed concepts. The concept would preserve the current footprint of the former Stars Theater and Arts Center the town purchased to convert into an arts center, at least at first.
The structure’s one-story outcropping, however, will have a second floor built above it to provide more classroom space, expanding the 11,500-square-foot building’s usable area to 12,500 square feet.
A 250- to 300-seat theater would anchor the building, which also would include a dance studio and classroom space for music, painting and other visual arts classes. The town hopes it will be the centerpiece of a downtown arts district.
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“It’s unlikely that the immediate renovation will include every possible want as part of the design,” Mitchell said. “Every design includes compromise in terms of space utilization.”
With the approval, Szostak Design, the Chapel Hill firm contracted to design the arts center, will move forward with preliminary designs for that concept. That process should yield more concrete cost estimates, at which point the board will determine whether to continue pursuing the chosen layout. The center is expected to open in December of 2017.
Attached to the recommendation is the request that Szostak also begin preliminary design work for a contingency concept, which would have the theater built as an addition to the existing building instead of within it. That could occur, Mitchell said, if evaluations of the decades-old building reveal structural problems that would increase the cost of adding a second story.
The $3.1 million average cost estimate, provided by the design firm, exceeds the $2 million the town had set aside for construction. The extra money will come from a $500,000 transfer from the town savings and, potentially, county funds.
The design team added an outdoor stage to the approved design since it and about 10 others were first presented April 19. A second phase of construction is planned to expand the theater into the space occupied by the outdoor stage, at the rear of the building.
The theater and its proposed size have been focal points of the debate surrounding this project. Some, including Commissioner William Harris at Tuesday’s meeting, have cautioned against letting that focus come at the expense of other groups that also need space.
“The discussion initially was about a cultural arts center, and now the discussion is about a theater,” Harris said. “I’m hoping we can still have diverse activities and programming that will serve the entire community.”
Mitchell said the theater’s centrality to this design is due in part to the fact that other kinds of space would be easier to add to the facility in the future.
“Theaters are highly specialized spaces that are a significant challenge to upscale without significant disruption and expense,” he said.
Maureen Daly, the town’s new arts center director, weighed in publicly for the first time. She said the projected 300-seat size of the theater is appropriate for the types of shows Fuquay-Varina’s residents would be most likely to attend. Anything much smaller, she said, would put pressure on the town and production companies to charge higher prices per seat to recoup costs.
Commissioner Charlie Adcock at first suggested that the existing theater’s 147-seat capacity might continue to be sufficient, saying he didn’t want to lose the feeling of intimacy he associates with community theatre. He said more seats might be needed but said he hoped the space wouldn’t feel cavernous when it hosts more sparsely attended shows.
Daly suggested a design including a balcony would allow smaller productions to close off the upper level and concentrate the audience in the lower seats.
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan