The Chatfield Center for the Arts has been included in the 2014 Minnesota state bonding bill, slated to receive $5.3 million for improvements and renovations.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
The Chatfield Center for the Arts has been included in the 2014 Minnesota state bonding bill, slated to receive $5.3 million for improvements and renovations. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
"About 2:15 Friday morning, I was sitting on one of the few soft seats in a corner of the Capitol near the Supreme Court chambers when Senator (Thomas) Bakk walked by on his way to his office. He said, 'It's all done. Have a nice night' and kept walking. That's when I knew that the House, Senate and Governor had all agreed and that our funding was included," said Chatfield Center for the Arts (CCA) advisory board member Michael Martin.

This was the moment that defined the beginning of infrastructure improvements and the continuation of renovations at the arts center - including the addition of handicapped accessibility, restrooms and a coatroom, courtesy of the 2014 Minnesota State Legislature granting $5.3 million to update Potter Auditorium and the former Chatfield school building.

Martin has been part of the effort to garner the Legislature's attention and ultimately the state bonding funds for the past several years. He noted this hard-won decision has come after years of Chatfield's leaders remaining in contact with legislators, even to the point that when he visited the Capitol, a construction worker there knew him well enough to say "Hi, Mike."

Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young's reaction to the news Martin relayed was, "Wow!"

Young said that was followed by a sign and then the thought, "Now we get to step up, improve the property and develop programming that will be enriching and sustainable."

Young also explained, in general terms, these funds are slated for improvements to Potter Auditorium, to address accessibility issues - an elevator and such, to improve the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems.

The Chatfield Center for the Arts belongs to the Chatfield Economic Development Authority (EDA), acquired in 2010 after the elementary school relocated to the new building on Highways 30 and 74 in 2008.

"Since the EDA took over the property in February of 2010, that is probably the official beginning of what we refer to as the Chatfield Center for the Arts," Young explained. "In 2009, we first approached the Legislature, actually at the behest of the school district, which was the owner at that time."

The CCA has provided tours of the facility and hosted meetings with two bonding committees from the Minnesota House and Senate over the past years.

Chatfield's leaders worked hard to make an impression on the bonding tour participants in the half-hour stops. "The effort to get included in the bonding tours and the bonding bill is what really takes a lot of time," Young added. "This involves learning the legislative process, getting to know key administrative staff, testifying before House and Senate committees, and talking one to one with many individual legislators."

The city hired professional lobbyist Jill Sletten to assist with the process and key introductions, and city staff and volunteers offered public testimony.

Young credited Martin with "supplying the tenacity to get most of this done" so that the bonding tour buses would stop in front of Potter Auditorium.

Young continued, "While the amount of time (on bonding tours) hasn't been as significant as it could have been, those performers who presented themselves to the committees, such as Judge Joe Chase, Al Dietz, Randy Wilson and others, really put themselves out there and caused the Chatfield stop to be memorable to the committee members."

The CCA's official vision statement reads: "The Chatfield Center for the Arts will be a sustainable organization that promotes the Arts for the benefit of the Community, the Region and the State. The Chatfield Center for the Arts will maintain the historical integrity of the structures while incorporating state-of-the-art technology to serve the needs of a variety of users and inspire performers, audiences and all those who use this unique facility."

Young noted the EDA has been involved as the owner of the property and has been willing to do so because they believe that the Center, once it becomes a fully functioning facility, will make a significant impact on the community in several ways.

"The busier the Center becomes, more people will be attracted to the community, which translates into more business opportunities," he added. "The Center also serves as an amenity to those who live here, or those who might want to live here, which is helpful to retain and build the residential base of the community. The EDA also provides oversight to the CCA Advisory Committee it has appointed to assist in the development of the property and its programming."

Furthermore, Young said, the city has been hugely involved, as it continues to be the primary funding source to maintain the facility. The city also provides the funds necessary to meet the basic operating needs, it provides a significant amount of staff time to facilitate the advisory committee and day-to-day operations. The city public works employees mow the lawn, clear the snow and provide basic maintenance support to the property.

However, Young pointed out, "Except for some administrative support, the entire facility is staffed by volunteers. For that matter, every event that is sponsored by the Center for the Arts is sponsored by volunteers, with no profit or pay to anyone involved. It is almost unbelievable what has been accomplished on the backs of those many people...their value is priceless."

Young stated that when the EDA took over the CCA property, only two activities were slated to take place - the Western Days musical that is annually sponsored by Wits' End Theatre (WET), and the high school's spring musical.

That has changed dramatically over the past four years, in that WET now offers three different presentations throughout the year and the CCA is the location for the Chosen Bean Folk Concert Series, a comedy series, the Second Sunday Film Series sponsored by the Chatfield Public Library and dances that are occurring almost on a monthly basis.

In addition, the school is presenting two to three plays each year, there are three concerts per year in Potter Auditorium and there are many private functions sponsored by individuals and businesses, Young added.

"In terms of programming, much has been accomplished, but much more is yet to be developed," he said.

An estimated 11,000 people have come to the CCA each year, for everything from concerts and Fillmore County Judge Matt Opat's court investiture to yoga classes, graduation receptions, fundraisers, weddings and rehearsal dinners - not to mention President Barack Obama's visit.

"The activities that are taking place are quite varied and each of them seems to attract a unique set of supporters," Young stated. "There is a steady stream of people to dance, watch concerts, comedy, films, all of which point to support. Another sign of support is the result of a general appeal that was sent out last fall, which garnered more than a few thousand dollars."

Those dollars don't all come from the Chatfield community, even though Chatfield residents support the CCA extremely well, as the venue has become a destination for people from the greater southeast Minnesota region.

Young said, "On average, approximately 40 percent of the Chosen Bean concert patrons come from outside the community, as do a large percentage of Wits' End patrons and many of those attending concerts in Potter Auditorium. Whether patrons come from outside the area or not, just getting people out and about results in economic activity and in people getting to know one another, which is a key element of building strong communities."

The direct economic impact has meant over $1 million have flowed through the Center in the past four years from ticket sales, concessions, capital improvements, operational costs, catering costs and more.

"The list of businesses that are impacted is long and varied - those businesses are concentrated in the Chatfield area but spreads throughout southeast Minnesota, to the metro area, and beyond," Young said. "In terms of indirect impact, it is difficult to measure, as this comes in the form of people stopping downtown before or after an event, people stopping at the convenience stores and other retailers, and those staying at the bed and breakfasts."

Young also explained that the decision to request bonding funds was not made lightly, as it is a tall responsibility to make sure the results are worthy of the investment.

"However, understanding that Potter Auditorium was designed and constructed to serve the public for as many years as it was, that the Chatfield community has such a long and positive history with music and theater, it just made sense to reinvest in that property for this purpose," he said. "At the same time, since the amount of money that is required to renovate buildings of this size, especially when seeking to maintain the historical integrity of the property, is so great, it quickly became evident that outside funding was needed."

Those people who follow the legislative process and the bonding decisions know that funds are spread throughout the state to all sorts of communities, for all sorts of reasons. "Given the economic and social impact that this Center has made and will make, this community made a worthy request," Young said.

Work on the CCA will begin just as soon as it is practical.

"It will take a little while to get organized, to set up a decision-making tree, to do some pre-design work, and to garner public input," he said. "As this interview is taking place, the governor hasn't even signed the bill yet. We have been in this position one other time and fell to the line-item veto pen so, while we would like to hit the ground running, the starter's gun has yet to sound."

Young cautioned that the $5.3 million will not fix all of the CCA's deficiencies, but at least offers a start.

"Other renovations will still be needed within and outside of the buildings, so another round of bonding is expected," he added. "Beyond all of this talk of improving the property, what might be the most significant effort is to create a management team and programming that will fill the buildings with activity, resulting in the social and economic gains that are anticipated."

Young concluded by explaining that the entire effort is about giving back to the community. It is part of building a community that will continue to be relevant, livable and sustainable.

"This is an effort to benefit the entire region, with a focus on Chatfield," he said.

At the close of 2013, the CCA's operating budget stood at approximately $67,000, far from the $5 million its guardians hope to build to ensure that it doesn't fall into financial disrepair.

Martin commented, "It doesn't do a thing for our community to simply have two nice buildings in the middle of town. We have to use them for them to have an impact. The bonding funds won't do that. We have to do it ourselves...but standing on that stage (in Potter) in front of an audience will change your life forever."

The CCA's advisory committee and director are gladly taking volunteers and donations anytime, from anyone willing to lend a hand or spare change. Young encouraged interested parties to call CCA director Megan Kleven at (507) 867-2927 to give what one can.