The Center for Performing Arts has been a long time coming to the campus of Western Illinois University.
The project has been stalled the last few years while the university waited for the state to release the money to start construction.
It’s hard to say exactly how long a performing arts center has been in the works. Planning and advocacy for such a building goes back to the 1970’s. In more recent years, the Illinois Board of Higher Education recommended the project in 2002, some design money came through in 2006, and the state legislature finally green-lighted the building in 2009.
Then things really slowed down.
Despite a ceremonial groundbreaking in 2011, no real dirt was turned. But now construction crews will soon start turning dirt. Governor Pat Quinn came to Macomb Wednesday to release the $60 million for construction. WIU President Jack Thomas says the university's patience finally paid off. "The continued support behind this project demonstrates the collaborative effort of those individuals who did not lose sight of the construction of a new performing arts center at Western Illinois University", Thomas told about a crowd of about 200 in the University Union yesterday.
Thomas also joked with president Emeritus Al Goldfarb about the project that was not finished during Goldfarb's tenure at Western. "Al, just pinch yourself today. You’re still with us. You’re alive to see this vision come into fruition," Thomas said to laughter of those gathered.
Now that the money has been released, work can begin on the performance center. It will be built between Browne Hall and the Corbin-Olson Residence Halls on Western Avenue. It will include a 1,400 main theatre and two smaller and cozier theaters that seat 250 and 150. The space also includes rehearsal rooms, classrooms and offices for the College of Fine Arts and Communication.
Western previously projected the building would open by next year. Instead, construction should begin by next year. However, Governor Quinn says there were not delays, rather phases that needed to be completed. "We had to spend 12 million dollars to design the building. You know, this is a major building of 130 thousand square feet", Quinn said. "And the next phase, 60 or so million dollars, is to build the building. That’s where we got going today. We approved the funding. The money is available. The work will go forward, and the building will be built."
Quinn says the arts are an important part of education, and WIU’s Center for the Performing Arts will go a long way to improve opportunities for students. He also says it will be a boon for the region. "It also provides a space in Western Illinois for people to see great music, great theatre, great art. This stirs the soul. I think it’s very very important that every part of Illinois have an opportunity to see art and music," Quinn said. "And building this center where students will be educated by great educators, but also provides people in the region really have a good time. And I believe in that."
Local leaders are also looking forward to the impact of the construction project. Macomb Mayor Mike Inman says its more than just a major improvement for his city’s biggest employer, but an example of city and university cooperation.
"This is truly is an economic development opportunity for the entire area," Inman said.
While it's too soon to say how many people from in and out of town will be employed during the 30 month construction period, job creation is definitely part of the Governor’s bragging points about the Center. "Art means business, means jobs," said Quinn. "Culture means a chance to have a chance to have economic growth. That really is true over and over again. That’s why this investment will pay dividends in economic growth and jobs."
The next step is to solicit construction bids. Then once work gets underway, the university will start the process of determining how to staff the building and book the concerts and traveling acts to fill the theatres.