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Funding shortage forces changes to arts center in Woodbury

The Merrill Community Arts Center has undergone some major revisions.

Rather than being entirely housed in an addition at East Ridge High School, the center will be divided between East Ridge and a space on Rivertown Drive.

The initial vision, by Arts Connection, was to a build a $4.1 million community arts center, to be attached to East Ridge High School's Loft Stage. Originally, it was to include a black box theater, an art gallery, storage space, prop studio, administrative offices, rehearsal space, classrooms and a set studio.

But in May when Arts Connection opened the construction bids it was quickly realized that the project was going to cost much more than anticipated.

"Largely what the bids revealed was that there were some structural challenges that we didn't understand," Arts Connections Vice President Michelle Witte said.

Witte said the bids revealed that Arts Connection was between $500,000 and $800,000 under budget and that renovation and expansions would pose a lot of challenges in order to be attached to the school.

Arts Connection then revisited an option that had always been discussed -- maintain the black box theater at East Ridge but move the "back end" functions, such as the set shop, costume design and rehearsal space, to a second location.

"We didn't have the luxury to wait to raise another several hundred thousand dollars," Witte said. "We needed to get going, so we either don't build it or we try to find another option."

Witte stumbled across a commercial property, a former architectural showroom, at 380 Rivertown Drive for a cost of $450,000.

The 8,000 square foot building is located off Commerce Drive next to Woodbury Dance Center and behind Sam's Club.

The "Rivertown Campus," as it is being called, will include space for theater set design building, costume and props production and storage, visual art design and display, administrative offices and meeting rooms, and space for rehearsals and gatherings to support the arts in the community.

The black box theater will remain attached to East Ridge but with some minor revisions to include a different entry and possible "green room."

The entire project will now cost $2.5 million and will require Arts Connection to raise an addition $200,000 for an endowment.

"You make lemonade out of the lemons you are given," Witte said. "You can only sit on the ground and cry for so long and then you have to get back up. "

Arts Connection closed on the Rivertown space Aug. 1.

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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