Though I did not hesitate to vote for the new Westbrook middle school in May 2007, I was one of the 36% of Westbrook residents who cast a vote against the new performing arts center that was expected to cost the City $4.1 million dollars over twenty years, including an extra $2 million in interest.
If I remember correctly, the proponents of the auditorium argued in 2007 that the City would be saving money by building the auditorium, because the city's residents would no longer be required to outlay monies for graduations at Merrill Auditorium in Portland. Moreover, I seem to recall proponents batting away opponents' concerns that our current auditorium in the high school wasn't used enough by pointing out the new one would be more functional because it would have better technology, most notably air conditioning.
So color me skeptical when these two arguments appeared to shrivel up under the lights of Room 114 at the Westbrook School Committee's November 18 meeting.
To be fair, as school committee member Ed Symbol pointed out in defense of his uncharacteristic vote in favor of a graduation at Merrill Auditorium, the Class of 2010's overwhelming preference for that location (I'd link you to the AJ's November 19 story containing more information about the concerns of the Class of '10, but the hamsters at 840 Main Street have slowed their gait) will not cost the taxpayers of Westbrook any more money than if the graduating students had opted for a graduation at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center, because the money for the Merrill auditorium would not be coming out of the budget.
Nevertheless, I tend to agree with the committee's lone dissenter on this issue, Mary Hall, when she pointed out that it's very likely the residents of Westbrook will be digging into their pockets for a Merrill Auditorium graduation, whether it's via the school budget or through some type of fundraising.
Moreover, school committee chairman Greg Smith's observation that the new auditorium will simply not be big enough for a proper graduation (or as he put it, "you can't put ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack") causes me to wonder if the Westbrook Performing Arts Center will ever fulfill that plank of the proponents' case for building the auditorium. And while this current incarnation of the school committee chose to withhold additional funds for a Merrill graduation, will that be the case in the future?
My attention was further piqued during a presentation of the manager of the performing arts center, Jamie Grant. After informing the committee that the facility should be open for school-related events in February 2010 and will be ready to host professional events by the fall of 2010, committee member Maria Dorn asked Grant why they couldn't host such events earlier in the year.
Grant gave two reasons, the first being legitimate, and the second, head-scratching. First of all, Grant said, we don't know if we'll have the familiarity with the facility's outstanding technology or the staffing necessary to pull off such an event at an earlier date, and we don't want acquire a bad reputation for slipshod productions. That's fair. The second reason, though, made my mind whirl: We won't be hosting events in the summer, Grant said, because there simply aren't audiences for shows that time of year.
I know a vast majority of scientists expect the temperature of the Earth to rise in the near future, but is an air-conditioning system truly needed for a Maine-based performing arts center that'll evidently be closed during the summer?
- John C.L. Morgan
(Update: You can see see now and later photos of the WPAC at the facility's Facebook page.)