OPINION: 7 Reasons West Jordan needs to build a cultural arts center

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by Travis Green
October 24, 2017

The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sugar Factory Playhouse, West Jordan Theater Arts, or the City of West Jordan.

“Biggest waste of money,” the Facebook comment began. I knew it was going to be all downhill from there. This was clearly a reader that wasn’t a fan of West Jordan building a cultural arts facility.

Commenting on a City Hall Facebook post announcing the groundbreaking of the new cultural arts center, the reader went on to state that “There are plenty of other venues that won’t cost WJ residents in excess of $10 million over the next 30 years plus ongoing costs”. (The comment has since been removed.)

My soul slumped. I’d heard this argument before, of course, and it always came from a non-actor that I’d be willing to bet dollars to donuts doesn’t attend the theater on a regular basis. I can’t blame someone that doesn’t drink the sweet nectar of live theater for dismissing spending on a new theater as frivolous, I guess. If I put aside my righteous indignation and look at it objectively, I can see where they’re coming from, at least superficially. But as with so many other things in life, we don’t always look at all angles from all points of view before forming opinions. So, let’s examine why West Jordan does need to build a theater. At least from my point of view.

1. West Jordan has a theater program but no theater for them to perform in
Anyone that has been involved with West Jordan Theater Arts for very long can probably recite the history of theater in West Jordan by heart: West Jordan Theater Arts began in 1995, performing in an open pavilion in what is now named Veterans Memorial Park. They made due with that facility, as well as one show each at West Jordan High School and a former senior citizens center, until they were given the abandoned sugar factory in 2004, which they converted into a makeshift theater. It wasn’t pretty, but it was theirs, doggonit, and they were proud of the transformation they were able to make.

From 2004 to 2010 they performed at their homemade theater, giving their theater company the name Sugar Factory Playhouse. But in 2010, three days before “See How They Run” was to open, the City of West Jordan declared the sugar factory unfit for occupancy and condemned the building. Midvale City graciously allowed them to use the Midvale Performing Arts Center on short notice. Since then, Sugar Factory Playhouse, which retains its name in memory of their brief beloved home, has since performed in whatever venue they can find available, including Copper Hills High School, West Jordan High School, West Jordan City Hall, Viridian Event Center, the West Jordan Rodeo Arena (that was a fiasco!), West Jordan Elementary, and Pioneer Hall, in addition to the Midvale Performing Arts Center. (Check out a full list of all 63 West Jordan Theater Arts productions here.)

In 2015 we were given the old West Jordan library to use temporarily as a theater until a permanent facility could be built. (I became the Marketing Specialist for Sugar Factory Playhouse in 2014, and since then I’ve begun to include myself as part of Sugar Factory Playhouse, switching from “them” to “we.”). With substantial help from community volunteers, we quickly spruced up the (let’s be honest) decrepit building as much as we could, and with paint still drying on the walls, we put on “The 39 Steps.” I was an actor in that show, and I remember how excited we were to finally have a semi-permanent place to rehearse and perform. I also remember how amazed I was to see the community answer our desperate call and eagerly come help us paint, tear out cabinets, patch walls, and prepare the building for opening night. The community wanted a permanent home for the theater arts in West Jordan.

Within days of the show closing, however, the fire marshal declared the building unfit to use as a theater (it lacks a fire sprinkler system); although we could and do continue to use it for (very limited) storage and for rehearsals, we could not use it for performances. Since then Sugar Factory Playhouse has alternated between Pioneer Hall and the Midvale Performing Arts Center for our shows.

Can you see why we’re excited to have a permanent, dedicated arts facility built in West Jordan? How could we not be excited to have a home in West Jordan? So to answer the question of those that ask why we need a theater in West Jordan when there are already so many other theaters around, I say, should a person whose home was destroyed be content to bounce from hotel room to hotel room in some neighboring city? Would anyone fault them for wanting a place of their own in the city they want to live in? Of course not. Similarly, we want a “home” of our own to live in in our own city.

2. Much of our budget goes to renting venues
“But Travis,” you might argue, “the cost of renting a facility doesn’t even come close to equaling the cost of building a $9.2 million theater!” True, but the cost of renting a hotel room doesn’t come close to equaling the cost of buying a home, either, yet no one expects anyone to live out of a hotel room. That’s financially wasteful, right? I don’t see a difference with the theater; spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year to rent venues, oftentimes in another city, is financially wasteful, as West Jordan Theater Arts board member Melanie Turner pointed out to me. That money could be better spent on better costumes, props, and sets for our shows.

3. The quality of our productions are limited by the venues we rent
I can’t tell you how many times the theater board has sat in a season planning meeting and had to turn down the idea of doing a great show because there’s no way we could pull it off in the venues available to us. Pretty much any show that requires multiple or complex sets is out of the question.

As grateful as we are for the use of Pioneer Hall and the Midvale Performing Arts Center, we do have to work around the limitations of those venues. The Midvale Performing Arts Center lacks wings, making stage right or stage left exits impossible. To their credit, they did recently install brand new seating, which is great, but more than once we’ve had to cram in additional folding chairs and benches to get everyone a seat.

At Pioneer Hall, the audience has to sit on cold, hard metal folding chairs, and I know of at least one patron that left a show before intermission because the seats were too uncomfortable. In addition, the stage is minuscule, so we have to bring in and assemble our own stage, taking up about a fourth of the hall’s seating space, leaving us with even fewer seats than the Midvale Performing Arts Center. The hall wasn’t really built to be a theater (it was originally a pioneer-era church building), so the acoustics are less than optimal; we have to line the walls with drapes to absorb the echos that bounce around the room.

In contrast, the new arts center will feature a 300-seat dedicated theater, giving us plenty of space for our audiences (with room to grow), in a room designed for theatrical productions. The quality of our productions and the quality of patrons’ experiences will be immediately improved.

Now a quick disclaimer: I don’t want to make it sound like we’re ungrateful for the facilities we’ve been fortunate to have access to over the years; without them we would not have survived as an organization. But we’ll be very, very grateful for a new, dedicated facility that’s built for our needs.

4. Multiple organizations will use the building
It’s important to remember that the cultural arts facility will be home to multiple arts organizations. In addition to Sugar Factory Playhouse, West Jordan Youth Theatre, West Jordan Symphony, and the chorale will all hold performances and concerts at the building. In addition, art shows will be held there for the visual arts. In fact, one of the most intriguing features of the new building will be the sculpture garden. So the building’s not just for theatrical productions.

The facility will also be made available to outside organizations to rent for events, which will bring in revenue for West Jordan.

5. The cultural arts facility will contribute to Downtown West Jordan
A major goal of the City of West Jordan is to create a dynamic downtown for the city, with City Hall and the West Jordan library/Viridian Event Center as the starting point. The cultural arts facility will strengthen the downtown growth, with retail and other entertainment entities coming in the future and possibly a new recreation center. This retail and entertainment hub will bring revenue and jobs into the city economy from surrounding communities. Imagine having a centralized space in Downtown West Jordan where you can eat dinner and then catch a show!

6. Brand awareness is key
As Marketing Specialist for Sugar Factory Playhouse, I’m constantly thinking about how to get as many people to see our shows as possible, and one hang-up that we’ve had to deal with is brand awareness. As much as I try to create awareness and recognition of our brand online, without a permanent performance venue, we can’t build brought public awareness of our presence or products (shows). Having a permanent, visible home will allow us to create a presence in the community that we just don’t have now.

7. The arts benefit everyone, even if they don’t participate in them
Not everyone has kids in school, right? And yet we all pay taxes that fund education because we realize that, although we might not directly benefit from education, everyone benefits at least indirectly from a better-educated society. Similarly, you may not participate in the arts as a participant or even as a patron, but others do, and it makes them better people, which makes your community better. Exposure to and involvement in the arts improves academic performance and broadens exposure to cultures and ideas that would not be experienced otherwise.

Does a new cultural arts facility cost a lot of money? Yes, it does – $9.2 million. Fortunately, only about $3 million of that will be paid for by the City of West Jordan (approved by the City Council back in 2015). The rest will be paid for by the sale of some city-owned property (including the old West Jordan library property) and by the Salt Lake County Cultural Facilities Support Program. So, yes, it does cost a lot of money. But the long-term benefits far outweigh the costs.

At least that’s my point of view.

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Travis Green is an actor and director and has served as the Marketing Specialist for Sugar Factory Playhouse since 2015. He works as a Business Systems Analyst during the day and enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters, watching movies, reading, and performing.