Legion Hall sold; building to be arts center

Organizers say renovation will be ‘a community project’

The American Legion Hall building at Cascade and Third streets has been sold and is poised to become the center of Hood River’s arts and culture scene.

The building was bought by long-time valley resident Jack Mills, who in turn will sell it to the dual entities of the Columbia Art Gallery and the CAST community theatre group when the non-profit organizations raise the money to purchase it from him.

Tentatively called the Gorge Cultural Center, the 9,600 square foot building will house the art gallery and the CAST theatre, as well as multiple use classrooms and common spaces for use by the community.

“It’s just a dream,” said Judie Hanel, a long-time CAST board member who will serve on the Cultural Center board. “It’s just incredible.”

Board members of both the Columbia Art Gallery and CAST Performing Arts Center announced in January that they would lose the leases on their separate downtown spaces this year — the art gallery in June and CAST in December. When the American Legion building came up for sale, Mills approached the two organizations — both of which he has staunchly supported since moving to Hood River in the 1970s — and offered to buy it for them.

After a month of negotiations, Mills bought the building for $475,000. He will sell it to CAST and the gallery at no profit.

The American Legion board is looking for another location in Hood River to establish its post.

“We’re looking for a smaller space,” said Legion board member Mike Benedict. “The operating costs were getting much too large.”

CAST and the Columbia Art Gallery, along with the Gorge Regional Arts Council, have formed the Gorge Cultural Center Project, the entity that will conduct fundraising and coordinate plans for an extensive remodel of the building. The Cultural Center board is comprised of Hanel, Lynn Everroad, Gordon Mayer, Tom Penchoen and Bill Sturman.

Hanel said she hopes renovation of the building can begin within 10 months. Local architect Art Larsen has already provided conceptual drawings of potential designs for the renovation.

“We’re very much in the planning stage right now,” Hanel said. The building was built in 1959 after a fire substantially destroyed a Texaco station on that corner. Hanel said the building is “basically in great shape, but some things will have to be done to bring it up to today’s code.”

Fundraising efforts will be coordinated by Gordon Mayer, director of the Gorge Regional Arts Council, and will include “major fundraising in the community,” according to Hanel.

“We want the whole community to feel tied to this project,” she said. Paul Lindberg, a consultant who spearheaded the grantwriting for the library expansion project, will coordinate an extensive grantwriting campaign for the Cultural Center project.

The cost for the project, including purchasing the building from Mills, is estimated to be $900,000.

Mills equates the Cultural Center project with the library expansion currently underway.

“As far as the usefulness to the community, I think it’s equal in importance,” he said. Mills credits Columbia River Bank for helping make the deal work.

“Without their help and encouragement and willingness to go the long distance with us, it would have been impossible to pull off,” he said.

Hanel calls Mills and architect Larsen, who has donated much of his time and expertise, “our angels.”

“This project will create all kinds of new energy in the local arts scene, both visual and performing,” she said. In addition to Mills and Larsen, she said “several anonymous people” have “stepped forward with money and momentum to move the project along.”

“I continue to be amazed at this community and the support that is given to a variety of projects,” she said.

Tax deductible donations can be made to the Gorge Cultural Center Project, P.O. Box 1711, Hood River, OR 97031. The fiscal agent for the project is the Gorge Community Foundation. For more information about the project, contact Judie Hanel at 386-6221.

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