OP-ED: It’s time for a Washington County Cultural Center | Op-Ed
“The arts can enrich all of our communities and the country. And the arts can connect us to each other like nothing else can.
Washington County is blessed with a diverse creative community that excels in all of the performing and fine arts, including music, theater, painting, dance, and sculpture. Over the years, talented volunteers and underfunded nonprofits have given us Wash Arts, the Washington Symphony, the Washington Jazz Society, the Community Theater, the Little Lake Theater, choirs, dance ensembles and many others.
A cultural center is a community building or complex dedicated to cultural activities and the arts. The effort to provide a permanent campus for arts and culture organizations in Washington County never materialized for a variety of reasons. First, well-established government concerns such as the Washington County Development Authority, Chamber of Commerce, Community Foundation, and Tourism all have their own mission statements that require them to fund and develop other projects. While each of the above would encourage and support a cultural center in Washington County, none is ready to lead the business.
Second, each cultural activity in Washington County is left to its own limited devices to raise funds, find space to perform or host classes for students, and announce scheduled offerings to the public. Some organizations like Wash Arts were forced to disband due to lack of funds. Others, like the Washington Symphony, scramble to find performance space before each gig, confusing their clients and making staging presentations a challenge. Each organization uses its time and energy simply to survive, and none have the resources to build and maintain a cultural center.
Cultural centers are common in Pennsylvania counties. In Pittsburgh, the Cultural Trust helps support Heinz Hall, the Benedum Theater, the Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O’Reilly, and the August Wilson Center. At the other end of the spectrum, smaller counties have often renovated and repurposed an aging, empty theater hall to serve as a cultural center. Because Washington is one of the few counties to have its own volunteer symphony, which requires a large auditorium, our specifications for a cultural center fall between these two extremes.
After taking inventory of what other counties in Pennsylvania have done to support cultural development, my attention was drawn to Lackawanna County, where Scranton is the county seat. I believe this community has the perfect model for Washington County to follow. Both are mid-size counties with similar sized populations. Lackawanna is committed to providing cultural opportunities for its citizens. The results are exemplary and easy to reproduce.
First, the Lackawanna Commissioners created a “Performing Arts Center Authority” to have a dedicated body with a single goal of developing and preserving a community cultural center. A semi-independent authority is looking at all development options except county government, but with the full support of commissioners who would appoint experienced and enthusiastic citizens to the authority.
Second, Lackawanna County has created “The Arts and Culture Bureau” within the county government. The stated mission of this county office is to “advocate and support high quality arts opportunities and programs for people of all ages throughout Lackawanna County.” From reading the available literature, it is clear that Lackawanna’s commitment to the arts made it easy for them to collaborate with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and receive guidance for its programs and state grants. (In fiscal year 2020, the state allocated $10,474,000 to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts).
The Washington County government is in a position to act now. It is high time to provide a dedicated campus for citizens to learn new creative skills, revisit old skills, and interact with other artists from alternative disciplines. Once our many performing arts and related programs have a foundation, everyone can focus on improving their art to better serve the citizens of Washington County.
Following the creation of a motivated government authority and the Office of Arts and Culture, the real work can begin. A suitable site for the center should be identified and renovated. Although I’m not familiar with commercial real estate or architecture, there seem to be several potential locations. For example, a movie theater and offices at the Washington Crown Center mall are empty. The Washington Mall is vacant and waiting for a buyer. The Courthouse Square building will need to be redeveloped once the relocation of county offices is complete. Southpointe, Peters Township, or Mon Valley may have suitable locations.
As with all projects of this size, funds for development and ongoing maintenance are an issue. Coming out of the pandemic, Washington County and Pennsylvania have healthy cash surpluses. State and local budgets couldn’t do better than earmark funds for a Washington County cultural center. Additionally, once local businesses and regional charities determine that Washington County is committed to a cultural and arts center, sponsorships and grants will become available.
A dedicated cultural center will provide leadership, advocacy, connections and space to grow. It will lead to the political, financial and professional support of this important part of a well-rounded community. A prosperous, innovative and creative population will be the result.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.