Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young shows the House Investment Committee the exterior of Potter Auditorium during the committee's tour last Tuesday afternoon.  GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young shows the House Investment Committee the exterior of Potter Auditorium during the committee's tour last Tuesday afternoon. GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS
Will Rogers, Al Dietz, Randy Wilson and Megan Kleven are Chatfield's bonding bill warriors.

"I just got back from the 1928 Democratic Convention," said Will Rogers, reclining in his rocking chair on the porch last Tuesday afternoon, as the House Investment Committee visited Chatfield.

Will Rogers, portrayed by Chatfield resident and Wits' End Theatre (WET) thespian Al Dietz, perused his listeners and shared a tale about how God offered the donkey, the dog and monkey each a 30-year life span, but each begged to have at least a decade taken back for various reasons. The donkey felt his burden would be too long, the dog, his teeth not so good, and the monkey, losing his mind and becoming the butt of jokes.

"That's when God turned to Man and said, 'I'm going to give you 30 years, and the best part is that you'll be smart' and Man said, 'God, that's not long enough,' so God said, 'I'll give you some donkey years during which you will be strong and able to carry a burden, some dog years during which you'll have good teeth, and some monkey years, when you'll be the butt of jokes. You'll have a long life, but it's going to come with a price. Oh yeah, I'm going to make you into a lawmaker."

Rogers then took off his coat and hat and donned a suit coat, once again becoming Dietz, who served as the spokesman for the wellbeing of the Potter Auditorium stage, on which he stood.

He addressed the Minnesota House Investment Committee, including chair Alice Hausman, regarding why the auditorium and its accompanying former school building now changes lives as the Chatfield Center for the Arts (CCA).

"That was a Will Rogers piece, and I thank you for your understanding - we wanted to show you how we can transform the way people think, how they see things, how they see the arts, and how you can take a guy who's a staff member at the Mayo Clinic and transform him into Will Rogers, right before your eyes," Dietz said. "The transformation, if it's working well, will help you come away touched and learning. It takes place not only on this stage, but in the community around you, be it sold out Chosen Bean concerts or Grammy award-winning artists onstage here. We're seeing businesses growing on that, the economy in the community and region benefiting from the transformations that happen here in this art center."

Delaware-to-Chatfield transplant Randy Wilson also spoke about how performing at the CCA changed his after-work life in just one year, noting he had been interested in "pushing a broom onstage after the show, maybe," but soon found himself part of WET productions. "The way that I was transformed in such a short time, in a matter of a year, included in the community...it all happened right here."

House committee members proceeded from the balcony - where they'd observed Dietz's interpretation of Will Rogers and inquired about the "classic" original seating - down to the stage, where Dietz and Chatfield resident Mike Martin spoke about how solid the auditorium is, with seating for approximately 820 people, but nowhere for those people to hang their coats, nowhere for them to park their cars, no elevator to assist disabled patrons.

They pointed out that the CCA's guardian, the Chatfield Economic Development Authority (CEDA), is seeking $7.985 million from the state as a match to the $9 million already invested in the property and the $5 million that it is trying to raise in endowments in order to make the center operationally sustainable, and funds would be used to rectify the shortage of parking and the lack of a coat room and elevator.

The entourage then followed their ears to the CCA's Legion Room, where CCA director Megan Kleven sat front and center, playing guitar and singing a Japanese folk song, and after she finished, the CCA's supporters, including Kleven, CEDA and city staff, elaborated further on the center's importance to the city and region's economic and cultural livelihood by sharing a video that featured a Chosen Bean audience member from the Twin Cities who came to hear the Sudden Lovelys perform. The individual shared that "there's really nothing like this in the Cities."

JAC's Bar and Grill owner Jeff Hare told how, in addition to boosting his catering business, the CCA's performance schedule has led to national artists dropping by the establishment and actually being hired to perform there, and finally, renowned pianist Lorie Line thanking "everybody at the Chatfield Center for the Arts...it deserves a lot of love...it's warm and cozy, and I hope that you can fix it up and give it a lot of love."

Hausman stood before the city staff and council, CCA volunteers and House committee members, relating how previous House bonding tours had left the city of Chatfield "denigrated." She specifically brought up the example of when, following a tour during Gov. Tim Pawlenty's tenure, the report returned to the House mistakenly noted the city was hoping to use state money for a "pottery center," when instead, the request was for funds to protect the contents of the Chatfield Brass Band Music Lending Library, where "the arranger for the Glenn Miller Orchestra knew that if he left his arrangements here, they would be available all over the world."

"We were impressed, but what we put this town through, I'll never forget. The only thing that we came away from this small town with was, 'What can a small town have that's worth saving?' But the town didn't give up, but that treasure still isn't protected from fire...you'd need the kind of system that pulls all the oxygen out of a room in order to save all that sheet music," Hausman said.

She went on to state that the Legislature did allow funding for the library's relocation or fire protection system in a bill that year, but it didn't pass. "But I just couldn't be in this building now and not bring that up. You still have the dream for this building...."

Rep. Greg Davids stood next. "The Legislature has supported this, but you had to have read the whole bill...Chatfield was on the veto list. I have to say still that this project is a worthy project and 2014 is the year to get it done, to fund this project. Chairman Hausman said that looking back, this town has been treated so unfairly, but this is the year for this project, and I know we can support it again."

Chatfield Mayor Russ Smith, speaking only as a parent and not as mayor, told the committee that his son, whom he thought would never consider a stage career of any kind, became involved in the WET production of "Footloose," and it was "the greatest moment."

"The money spent on Potter Auditorium and the Chatfield Center for the Arts has touched so many people over the years," he added. "This money keeps paying dividends and this place will always have special importance to many people."

Committee members asked why the 1954 building addition was demolished and whether it would have been more prudent to leave it standing.

Chatfield City Clerk Joel Young related that in removing the 1954 building, CEDA's prospects of qualifying the CCA for historic preservation funding were dashed, but that leaving the building standing was perpetuating blight on the property.

CCA volunteer F. Mike Tuohy commented on the sound construction of the 1916 school building and Potter Auditorium. "The engineering company that designed this building is still in business, and they've sent four different crews down to inspect it. There's not been a crack in it since it was built. I was watching them blasting stumps for the building addition when I was in school, and it didn't even shake the school."

Hausman asked how further investments might be made in the CCA, and encouraged the bonding committee to give the project serious consideration when determining the 2014 budget.

Martin, who has been involved with the development of the CCA since its inception, observed that nothing ventured is nothing gained, especially when seeking funding. "It's part of what we do," he said. "You never know if it helps or not, but we'll never know if we don't do it."