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Arts Connection purchased this 8,000-square-foot warehouse on Rivertown Drive in Woodbury after plans to build the Dorothy Merrill Community Arts Center at East Ridge High School did not materialize.

, Submitted photo

A 5,500-square-foot main level plus mezzanine space will be used for offices, meeting rooms, costume making and storage, rehearsal space, artist studios and display and receptions.

, Submitted photo

Plan B for Dorothy Merrill Community Arts Center

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW
  • Star Tribune
  • August 20, 2011 - 7:12 PM

For the past five years, Arts Connection has dreamed of having enough space of its own to design and build sets for theatrical productions, store costumes and props, conduct auditions and to host visual art shows and author signings.

Earlier this month, its dream came true -- sort of.

Plans to build the Dorothy Merrill Community Arts Center at East Ridge High School hit a snag during the spring when bids for the project made the endeavor cost-prohibitive. With a difficult choice to make, the nonprofit bought an 8,000-square-foot warehouse at 380 Rivertown Drive in Woodbury, where it will house all non-performance aspects of its operations.

Arts Connection is still hoping to build a black box theater at the school in the spring of 2012, said Michelle Witte, Arts Connection vice president.

"Our major donor, Dorothy Merrill, would be proud of this purchase," she said. "This is a great value and wise investment, and that's how she made her money."

Arts Connection had raised $2.5 million and had negotiated an agreement with the South Washington County School District to build an addition onto the Loft Theater at East Ridge High.

That would have included a small theater and the space necessary to prepare for and stage performances, host artists and authors, offer classes and house administration.

But construction challenges drove the cost beyond $3 million -- money that Arts Connection did not have and probably would not be able to raise.

"You can only cry so long, then you make the best of it," said Witte. "We had to make a decision and had to move forward. This seemed like a good option."

There are several upsides to obtaining what is being referred to as the Rivertown Campus. Arts Connection paid $420,000 on Aug. 1 for the foreclosed industrial condo, meaning the nonprofit will be able to keep its money and increase its endowment, Witte said.

The sprawling two-story space offers plenty of room for set construction and costume and prop storage, which Witte identified as some of Arts Connections' biggest needs.

It also will allow for more diverse programming, including book signings, receptions for visual artists and "affordable blockbuster shows that people want to see," Witte said.

Already, the Woodbury Community Theater is set to tackle a musical version of "A Christmas Carol," a Broadway revue and, next summer, "The Wizard of Oz."

"We'll now have the working space to handle that," Witte said.

Arts Connection also is sponsoring a performance by Up With People on Sept. 15 at the Loft Stage. It hopes to have an open house to show off its new digs in conjunction with the show, Witte said.

Arts Connection secured a $1.6 million endowment from the estate of Woodbury resident Dorothy K. Merrill, who wanted to contribute to the community. The rest of the $2.5 million it had to establish an art center in her name has come from fundraisers, pledges and donations, with the largest contributions coming from members of the Woodbury Community Theater.

"It was hard and disappointing at first, but it should be a good thing to have $2.5 million in hand," Witte said. "We are very excited. Now there is a way to move forward with the big plan."

Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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