As schools increasingly focus on technical education programs, many have lamented that the performing arts and humanities are getting short shrift.
But not in Jenison.
The school district in the small suburban community is betting big on the arts with a new $16 million, 90,000-square-foot performing arts center, expected to be completed this December.
Tom TenBrink, Jenison Public Schools superintendent, said the new facility is a step toward providing better opportunities for students and revitalizing the broader community.
“This was one of our glaring needs, not only in the school district but in the community,” TenBrink said. “For years, we’ve had to rent space from area churches for our theater and music programming. Our students deserve better.”
Moreover, the project could also help give the community a sense of place, he said. While some businesses had to close up because of the recession, resulting in some vacant storefronts, “this is a reinvestment in community, not just our school system,” TenBrink said.
While Jenison doesn’t really have a defined downtown area, TenBrink said he hopes the performing arts facility, which will also serve as the school’s new administration building, can provide a center of activity for the area.
The project also comes at a time when many school systems are scaling back on fine arts offerings and realigning education investments to focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. The impact of the recession saw many educational systems dropping arts and music programs to keep operating costs manageable.
However, the greater cost of this kind of disinvestment is the loss of students and a lack of enrichment opportunities, TenBrink said. So instead of building a new STEM facility, he set out on a five-year visioning plan that banked on the school’s already recognized music and theater programs.
In 2011, the community voted to increase taxes and the city’s school millage for a $33 million bond issue to pay for the school’s ailing infrastructure needs, technology upgrades, buses, carpeting and the crown jewel of the proposal — the administration building and performing arts center.
The bond issue proposal was passed with overwhelming community support, thanks in part to a 40-person citizen group spearheaded by TenBrink.
As educational facilities became a linchpin to many architecture and construction firms’ survival in the recession, the construction of fine arts amenities in the region has slowed since 2008, according to industry executives. Still, Triangle Associates Inc., the general contractor in charge of the Jenison project, added roughly 5,000 seats worth of new performing arts facilities in under a decade.
The company put together a 35,000-square-foot, $7.5 million fine arts center for Grant Public Schools and a 62,000-square-foot, $12 million center for Forest Hills Public Schools in 2004. In 2010, Triangle also finished the 52,000-square foot, $9.9 million Wayland Fine Arts Center after that school district passed a $39 million bond issue.
“There are communities out there that continue to support the performing arts, and Jenison is obviously one of those,” said Josh Symanski, vice president of business development for Triangle. “This is one of the largest, most sophisticated performing arts centers we’ve done.”
Other contractors told MiBiz that despite the depressed state of the economy and tough building climate, many bond issues — mostly for rehab projects or additions to existing facilities — continue to pass, which keeps plenty of work flowing in the educational sector. When coupled with institutional building for the region’s major universities, the market still has a lot of capacity not yet filled, sources said.
“Education in general, including higher education, is our largest market,” Symanski said. “It’s our bread and butter and probably more than 60 percent of our revenue.”
Passage rates today for school bond issues are around 70 percent statewide and the contractor is again adding schools to its client list, he said.
In its time, Triangle has supported roughly 40 school bond issue campaigns and works with school districts on marketing and community organization. The firm is working on two campaigns currently, a $990,000 bond issue in Vesterburg set for August and a $3.5 million bond issue for Centreville Public Schools in November.
More recently, the company helped pass a $40 million bond issue for Northwest Community Schools in Jackson.
While most of these projects are for basic operations and facilities improvements like mechanical systems and new roofs, passing bond issues that try to include developments like performing arts centers aren’t the norm, Symanski said, noting that Jenison is a bit of an outlier in that regard.
“We haven’t seen a lot of performing arts centers and things like pools lately. It will probably take a while before those come back and people are willing to support them with their tax dollars,” he said. “A bond issue program in Traverse City failed and that was largely attributed to the inclusion of a performing arts center, but communities are still testing the waters.”
For Jenison, the project does more than just test the waters. Rather, it’s trying to change the tide for a relatively nondescript community without a downtown, TenBrink said.
The performing arts center’s exterior is comprised of big panels of high-performance glass and white, man-made cut stone. The stone is customized with two scored lines for a more patterned effect.
Inside, the main performance hall has a large main floor and two levels of gallery seating for more than 1,200 patrons. Unlike many traditional theaters, the orchestra pit is behind the curtain rather than in its traditional spot at the front of the stage. An adjustable ceiling allows the stage performance area to be changed for smaller productions. A high-end, fully programmable rigging system completes the state-of-the-art venue.
Other features include large adjustable dressing rooms, a black box room for rehearsals, a set building shop and costume design space.
Mechanically, the design of the building put the air-conditioning system below the theater seats in the basement with a ventilation system running throughout the floor. While there is a trend toward this kind of building design, it’s often not possible because of poor foundation soil and fears that water might leak into the mechanical systems and because of difficulty getting fresh air into a building, said Mark Buczek, project superintendent for Triangle.
For the initial design of these types of facilities, the goal, traditionally, has been to design around one particular use and adapt for other uses, said Fred Gore, senior design architect at Grand Rapids-based URS Corp.
In this case, the goal was to design around music and make it adaptable for theater, hence the adjustable ceiling and displaced orchestra pit, he said. As a whole, the building’s simple lines and neutral color give it a modernist styling, he added.
To give the project even more flair, TenBrink is working on a partnership with Meijer Gardens to display some contemporary art in the facility and is also raising $200,000 in public funds to commission artist Richard Hunt for an original sculpture.
The center is booked with school groups through May 2014, after which the door is wide open for programming.
“This facility is going to be a testimonial for all who are looking at our area and (it) shows that we are looking forward,” TenBrink said. “I believe it will be an incredible shot in the arm for our community.”