What started as a "wouldn't it be nice" conversation among friends has progressed to developing a strategic plan to transform an empty log building into an art center on Main Street in Joseph.
Ann Stephens of Joseph recently talked to the Wallowa County Rotary Club about hopes and plans for the downtown structure. It was built as a new headquarters for then-Bank of Wallowa County in 1982 and more recently housed Magnoni's restaurant, but for several years has been vacant and for sale.
The whole thing started when a walking group of which Stephens is a part regularly walked by "the really neat, empty log building," and started talking about what a great arts center it would make. Among others were artist/musician Rodd Ambroson, to whom Stephens credits the original idea, and Stanlynn Daugherty.
They envisioned it as a gathering place for artists and musicians, a center where the community could gather for small concerts and other events, and artists could hold classes. There would be a "nook and cranny" for all the county's arts groups, conference space for programs and meetings, and a permanent sound studio for recording in the basement.
"It would fill a niche in the community that would be exciting," Stephens said.
A glimmer of the building's potential was seen last spring when the Wallowa Valley Music Alliance staged a Tunesmith concert with local musicians to raise money to pursue the arts center idea, and the Wallowa Valley Arts Council (WVAC)held its Quick Draw event there during the Wallowa Valley Festival of Arts in June. "The acoustics were fantastic. It would be a great space for all arts," Stephens said.
Other possible uses mentioned during the Rotary presentation was as a satellite campus for Eastern Oregon University or for classes by other colleges.
With the help of the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District (NEOEDD), supporters of the art center applied for a grant from the Myer Memorial Trust under the WVAC's umbrella. Stephens said the merit of the plan was recognized when the full amount of the grant request, almost $25,000, was approved to develop a strategic plan for the formation and operation of the Wallowa Valley Arts Center. NEOEDD is in the process of working on that plan.
In the meantime, Stephens said, "The big key to the puzzle is buying the building."
She noted that in most cases a nonprofit arts center can't afford to actually buy or build its own building. In this case, the building is on the market for $750,000, though Stephens expressed confidence that the owners, who are extremely supportive, will be willing to negotiate.
At present, she said the arts center group - realizing it will rely on public donations and grants in the future to help with operation - is looking for a patron "with deep pockets" who would be willing to buy the log structure as a donation to the community.
She told the Rotary members that there are already a number of possibilities, but additional ideas and contact information would be appreciated.
She said that one supporter has already stepped forward with an offer of $100,000 to donate outright, or partner with others.
One Rotary member asked if there was a limit to the number of people who could contribute to the purchase. Stephens said "no," but a lump sum donation would be ideal.
Another question was if the owners would be willing to lease the building on a month-to-month basis. Stephens said they were generous to open the building for the music and arts events already held there, and would be willing to lease it for just $1 a month. However, she said the group didn't want to take on the commitment of operating an arts center without having a pretty good idea that it would be long-term.
A number of Rotary members expressed enthusiasm for the proposed arts center, including one who said, "The building has a characteristic, old-West look. It would give a lot of exposure to our artists. It's not just a cold hard space."
"Hopefully this will happen and it will be something really special for Wallowa County," Stephens said.