Imagine: private seating, a sculpture garden, an all-weather rehearsal area, space for festivals and food trucks, major renovations, all brought together to create a state-of-the-art venue that can accommodate 1,500 people.
The site may be disused and in disrepair now, but it’s the $20.5 million proposal from the Walla Walla Summer Theater Group, an organization formed explicitly with the dream of transforming Fort’s former amphitheater Walla Walla in a place that will attract art lovers from across the region.
Tyson Kaup, president of the Walla Walla Summer Theater Group, presented this dream to the Walla Walla City Council during a recent business session.
A Walla Walla native who began his theater career as Prince Chulalongkorn in Fort Walla Walla’s 1993 production of “The King and I,” Kaup sought to convince the council to lease the amphitheater to his organization.
“I feel, as someone who grew up doing theater with Jack Freimann and JoAnne Rasmussen, a very, very personal connection to the project and a deep sense of gratitude to have the opportunity to lead this effort to restore the ‘incredible space,’ Kaup told council members.
If the band’s plans come to fruition, the amphitheater would hold around four or five major productions during each summer season, with an initial focus on musical theater due to local market interest. Over time, as audiences showed interest, the lineup would expand to classical, children’s and other plays.
When not in use for productions, the space would be available for rent, whether for productions from other organizations, event space or a wedding venue, Kaup said.
“We also plan to provide educational opportunities and grow that aspect of (the organization) as much as possible to showcase local art,” he said. “We want to work hand in hand to provide an abundance of artistic opportunities.”
A regional and cultural resource
If the amphitheater was rented to the Walla Walla Summer Theater Group, the organization proposes three phases of construction redesigning the space. In total, the construction alone would cost around $20.5 million, and the work would not be fully completed until 2028.
The first phase would be to bring the dilapidated amphitheater up to contemporary theater code and standards, simply allowing the band to start staging shows in the space again.
This phase, which would be completed by 2024 and cost more than $8.8 million, would also allow for the renovation or addition of a number of features:
- Parking lot
- Technical operations stand
- Addition of the second floor
- Renovation of seats
- Festival space
- Box office
- Stage renovation
- Sound/light structure
Phase 2, slated for completion in 2026 and estimated to cost nearly $7.1 million, would include the construction of a multipurpose rehearsal and events space above the existing cast room, allowing rehearsals to overlap with performances or to other organizations to rent the stage.
Phase 3, slated for completion in 2028 and costing over $1.5 million, would add 16 private viewing suites split between the east and west sides of the audience, offering premium viewing experiences for $30,000 to $50. $000 per year.
pay for it
If a lease is approved, the Walla Walla Summer Theater Group will first look to individual philanthropists to cover a portion of the initial $8.8 million construction cost.
Grants from foundations, corporations, governments, local trusts and arts organizations can also provide some funding. In a letter to city officials, among a long list of other institutional funding sources, the group proposes that the City of Walla Walla could allocate some amount of funds through federal COVID-19 stimulus packages.
The group would also work with local state legislators to see if the legislature would provide some of the funding Washington state allocates annually to the arts.
Finally, the group indicates that it could turn to institutional loans to cover the remaining investment costs. Part of that would be feasible due to strong revenue projections once the initial renovations are complete, Kaup wrote in a letter to city officials.
“A unique aspect of the WWSTG proposal is that we will have earned revenue streams which we believe will generate enough revenue to not only cover operating costs, but also generate a surplus to be used for future phases of development. facilities,” Kaup wrote.
Along with a construction bill of $20.5 over the next six years, summer theater group Walla Walla predicts the amphitheater would cost just under $900,000 a year to operate.
But the group also expects revenue of nearly $1.7 million a year.
Before the amphitheater closed nearly a decade ago, approximately 57% of seats were occupied with an average ticket price of $12. Summer theater group Walla Walla conservatively predicts that their performances could fill 50% of seats with ticket costs ranging from $25 to $85 and averaging $35, not including money spent on concessions. or in goods.
“We really believe that if we provide a consistent, high-quality entertainment experience, we can justify a slight increase in ticket price,” Kaup told council members on Monday.
The theater group
Besides Kaup, the Walla Walla Summer Theater Group’s Board of Directors consists of Vice President Jonathan Hartung, Board Secretary Jocqui Kaup, Director Tom Maccarone and Director Jim Wilson.
Hartung is an architect currently working on the design of the Walla Walla Public Library renovations.
Jocqui Kaup is an attorney who represents startups and emerging companies, as well as venture capital and private equity firms, with a number of well-known clients including GoFundMe, Mastercard and Bungie.
Tom Maccarone is the co-owner and founder of TMACS, an upscale Walla Walla restaurant, which also helped redesign the former Ford dealership into what is now The Showroom on Colville.
Jim Wilson is a marketing, communications, and business development leader with experience ranging from small startups to nearly 20 years with Microsoft, as well as a number of years of experience leading various nonprofit organizations. profit, including serving as director of corporate philanthropy for United Way of King County. .
In addition, the group has a set of “world-class” advisers across disciplines, such as Robert Welch, who ran Coeur d’Alene’s summer theater as it moved from a budget of annual operation of $40,000 to over $1 million, and Duncan Stewart, whom Kaup called one of New York’s most prolific casting directors working today.
Brian Wilcox, a tenured theater professor at Michigan State University and a Walla Walla native, will also help advise the group, Kaup said.
A rich history
Planning for the Fort Walla Walla Amphitheater began in the mid-1970s on the grounds of Fort Walla Walla Park on Myra Road following interest in historical re-enactments that would commemorate the United States Bicentennial in 1976.
From 1976 to 1981, the site was used as the location of a historical drama – “Trails West” – mounted by Walla Walla Outdoor Drama Inc.
That effort was backed by many local and regional names, including Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, according to old pamphlets obtained by Joe Drazan at the Bygone Walla Walla Project. Blethen served as Chairman of the Board.
The total cost of the venue was around $486,000 at the time, according to a brochure cataloged by Drazan.
After “Trails West” ended, Walla Walla Community College took over the lease, giving rise to the summer music program run by Friemann and Rasmussen.
By the late 2000s, Friemann and Rasmussen had passed away, and interest in summer productions had gradually waned year by year, according to UB reports at the time. In 2014, the open-air theater closed for the last time.
In previous years, the space has rapidly deteriorated, filled with brambles, broken bottles, rotting wood and graffiti-covered walls.
Another group considered
A separate group that had considered trying to revive the space, led by New Beginnings Chapel pastor Tim Bruner, has spent hundreds of volunteer hours cleaning up the space during the pandemic.
Bruner and friends from his church secured permission to enter the locked space – security measures that did not appear to keep wildlife or graffiti artists at bay – and got to work repairing the damage that had been caused.
But when Bruner proposed the possibility of renting the space, reviving plays and outdoor concerts, concerns were raised about a religious organization’s responsibility for a city-owned public place. .
“When it was mentioned that we were a religious group, it caused all sorts of … comments about it,” Bruner said in an interview, hesitating before finishing his reflection. “We wanted to reiterate that we wanted to renovate it not to make it a church, but to bring it back to life.”
Ultimately, Walla Walla city officials issued a public request for proposals, allowing Kaup and his group to formalize their pitch for the space. But by the time the proposals were due, none came from Bruner and his friends.
“It’s still very important to us, but our plate is so full with everything that’s going on,” Bruner said. “I’ve lost five or six people, including my associate pastor, to COVID.”
“Still, we really wish the best for the people who were doing this. I kinda like to think we got the ball rolling.