PORT ANGELES — A fundraising slowdown driven by the COVID-19 pandemic has forced organizers to indefinitely delay construction of Field Arts & Events Hall beginning in January.
“The pandemic is 100 percent behind this,” Field Hall board President Brooke Taylor said Wednesday.
Taylor told the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce during a virtual meeting earlier Wednesday that the approximately $50 million project is $10 million to $15 million short of what it needs, minus a $2 million state grant that recently gained preliminary approval.
The project is not alone in its COVID-19-related struggles, Taylor said.
“As far as what the future holds, the interesting thing is that just getting to the point where people can assemble again is not going to mean success for performing arts venues,” Taylor told meeting participants.
Taylor said in a later interview that the 41,000-square-foot glass, steel and masonry endeavor at the corner of West Front and North Laurel streets is 50 percent to 55 percent finished.
“The basic structure of the building is complete,” he said.
By January, the exterior will look like it will look when the doors open to the public, Taylor said. The landscaping will be finished by February.
Then the waiting begins.
The project — which will include a 1,000-square-foot art gallery, 500-seat performance hall, 300-seat conference area and a coffee shop — had been scheduled for completion by July.
Instead, there will be “a temporary pause in construction,” Taylor said.
He said a few variables will be at play in determining when the delay ends.
“That will be driven by, No. 1, the success of fundraising on the front end, and 2, where the pandemic restrictions take us,” Taylor said.
Before the pandemic hit last spring, organizers were ramping up to host, in a matter of months, a community capital campaign kick-off breakfast.
“We had so much planned for this summer,” Taylor said. “It’s very frustrating.”
“The hammer came down in March, and the fundraising landscape changed dramatically. It fell off a cliff.”
Taylor was planning to meet with fundraising committee members Wednesday afternoon to continue mapping out a new strategy, he said.
Social distancing guidelines make it difficult to raise funds, both face to face and at events like the breakfast that can’t be held.
Health measures also make it hard to schedule the conferences, meetings and performances that involve the kind of elbow-to-elbow contact with strangers impossible.
“The last types of activities that are going to be permitted are indoor gatherings of large groups of people,” he said.
“I can’t think of anything that would be later — the superspreaders.”
Taylor could not predict when construction might begin again.
“The one thing no one has control over is how the environment out there is going to change under COVID-19 restrictions,” he said.
“We’ve got to follow the numbers and what’s going on in the real world as far as the pandemic.
“It’s a wait and see on that end while we go full-bore on the fundraising end.”
The performing arts industry is predicting that venues may be able to reopen in 12-18 months.
But just because performance venues will reopen once a vaccine is available, it doesn’t mean patrons will return en masse.
“Regardless of the effectiveness of the vaccine, the projection is that the first year of reopening they will get 50 percent of a normal audience, then the second year, 80 percent, and have a full audience by Year 3,” Taylor said.
“For an existing venue that is bleeding money, they have to open under any circumstances to get some money in.
“It does not make sense for us to do that since we can effectively time our opening.”
The flip side of that: Conference and entertainment planners must schedule events several months in advance but cannot offer specific dates.
“Performance groups won’t commit because they have no certainty,” Taylor said.
“It’s a real can of worms when you realistically stop to think about programming and the lead time you need to do effective programming.”
Field Hall is being built by Minneapolis-based M.A. Mortenson Company with Clallam County subcontractors including Olympic Electric and Angeles Concrete of Port Angeles, and Jamestown Excavating of Sequim.
Most of their work is completed, Taylor said.
The final project cost won’t be known until the end of January, he added.
Taylor had estimated the cost of the project at $30 million to $31 million in August 2019.
“It’s been a moving target from Day 1,” Taylor said.
“I should never have projected it.”
The current estimate of about $50 million is “pretty solid right now,” he said.
“It will obviously fluctuate some, depending on market conditions.”
Taylor pointed to the $2 million grant as a vote of confidence in the project from those in the know.
Three weeks ago, the Washington State Arts Commission, in conjunction with the state Department of Commerce, recommended that state lawmakers approve the award.
Field Hall was the top-rated recipient among 18 applicants and would receive the maximum-allowable grant.
“It was a complete validation of what we are doing despite their knowledge of the temporary construction pause, and that was very rewarding,” Taylor said.
“They liked what we are doing, checking all the boxes.
“They think it’s a plus rather than a negative that we are making this prudent business decision.”
Field Hall is on a 1.6-acre parcel purchased with a $1.43 million donation from Dorothy Field.
It will include a facility run jointly by the Feiro Marine Life Center and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a cultural center operated by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. It is known collectively as the Port Angeles Waterfront Center.
Feiro Executive Director Melissa Williams and Tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles could not be reached late Wednesday afternoon for comment on the status of the other two projects planned for the site.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].
Terry Ward, publisher of the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum, serves on the Port Angeles Chamber of Commerce board of directors.