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Letter: Community Arts Center project should not start small

I personally disagree with the Madera Tribune’s Sept. 30 suggestion that our community “start small” when building a new Community Arts Center in downtown Madera. We need to think BIG or it will never get done. I know from experience.

The “start small” suggestion was that the Madera County Arts Council (MCAC) use a donation of more than $2.5 million from Franklin and Elaine Secara to help refurbish the 1917 downtown library owned by Madera County, a $3.5 million project, and then move into the library while funds are raised to build a $65 million cultural arts center across the street to the west, the present site of the old government center/courthouse that is still occupied by the Office of the District Attorney and Probation Department. There are several problems with that.

The Secara donation was made for the stated purpose of building and maintaining a cultural arts center. It was not made to construct a new home for the Arts Council. I know because I was on the MCAC board of directors when the money was received and invested for the Secara’s stated purpose. It is legally binding.

The purpose of the proposed but yet-to-be- finalized joint powers agreement between MCAC, the City of Madera, the County of Madera, and the Madera Unified School District is to, among other things, build, operate, and maintain both a cultural arts center and a new home for the Arts Council downtown. I know. I’m on one of those committees, too.

There is no guarantee that if the Arts Council moves into a refurbished library, with the current understanding that it would also have functional space in the cultural arts center, that that cultural arts center would ever be built.

While the current members of the Madera County Board of Supervisors have graciously and unanimously “resolved” to allow a cultural arts center to be built on the existing site of the former government center at some unstated future date, that resolution is simply a statement of good intentions. It’s somewhat like a New Year’s resolution to exercise and lose weight. How’s that working for most of us? And what if future supervisors change their minds? What if a developer comes along and offers money for that land and the promises of tax revenue for both the county and the city?

The good news is that the public entities and the Arts Council are presently working well together and that the suggested joint powers agreement will move us past the resolution stage. However, there is no guarantee at this point.

And then there’s human nature. The monies to build the cultural arts center and refurbish the 1917 library will have to come from private donors. If, as the Madera Tribune suggests, the Arts Council moves downtown into the old library with offices, gallery space, and “a small theater that could be used for little-theater productions, concerts and as a lecture hall” (for which there are no plans, interests, or monies), then why would people donate money to build the same thing across the street, albeit larger?

The County of Madera purchased what was Lincoln School at 209 West Yosemite when the State of California condemned it in the early 1950s. The government center and courthouse across the street at 210 West Yosemite was condemned at the same time. The county moved the government center and the court into the school to serve as a “temporary” home. That “temporary” home served the court for 60 years until the State of California built a new courthouse at 200 South G Street. I know because I worked with others for 17 years to get that new courthouse. And prosecutors and probation officers, and staff, are still “temporarily” in the condemned 100 year old Lincoln School.

I’m 65 years old. While I hope to have another 17 years in me, I’m not sure that I’ll be around in 60 years. I do know that I asked the state to build us a new courthouse because I failed years ago in my attempts to get local leaders to do it. I also know that Julie O’Kane has succeeded in getting local leaders behind a new cultural arts center and refurbished 1917 library.

Let’s take advantage of that marvelous spirit of cooperation. Let’s not screw it up by thinking small.

— Charles Wieland, Madera


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