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Kirkwood drops plans for Old Creamery Theatre's move to campus

Donating 'prime' land would benefit 'very few students,' college president says

This exterior view shows how the new Old Creamery Theatre facility on the Kirkwood Community College campus in Cedar Rapids would look during afternoon matinees. The building, projected to cost about $5 million, was slated to open in 2021 to celebrate the professional theater troupe’s 50th anniversary. According to a recent email, however, Kirkwood has decided not to pursue the joint project. (Vantage Point Architectural Services)
This exterior view shows how the new Old Creamery Theatre facility on the Kirkwood Community College campus in Cedar Rapids would look during afternoon matinees. The building, projected to cost about $5 million, was slated to open in 2021 to celebrate the professional theater troupe’s 50th anniversary. According to a recent email, however, Kirkwood has decided not to pursue the joint project. (Vantage Point Architectural Services)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Kirkwood Community College campus will not become the new home of the Old Creamery Theatre after all.

In an Oct. 4 email, Kirkwood President Lori Sundberg told Peter Teahen, president of the theater’s board, that “we are not interested in moving forward” with the project that had been hailed only last year by her predecessor as “a significant benefit” to the campus.

Under the original plan, the Old Creamery — a not-for-profit professional theater founded in Garrison in 1971 and based in Amana since 1988 — would raise about $5 million to build a state-of-the-art theater complex on 5 acres on the north side of the Kirkwood campus. The college would deed the land to Old Creamery once construction financing was in place. The footprint would include turning an automotive technology shop into space for the theater’s scenery construction, costuming and storage space under one roof — something the theater hasn’t had.

Target date for opening was 2021, during the theater company’s 50th anniversary.

The change in plans “has caught us totally by surprise,” Teahen told The Gazette on Friday. “This has been the agreement for three years. ...

“We’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time working on the commitment Kirkwood gave us,” Teahen said.

They were working under a memorandum of understanding, a non-binding agreement between Kirkwood and Old Creamery, which would be renewed periodically.

The agreement expired in July while Teahen was on vacation. He said that when he returned and found an email about the expiration, he began checking with the parties that had handled the previous agreement and its most recent extension.

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That launched an email chain that included setting up and then canceling a Sept. 6 meeting to discuss the issue. On Aug. 25, Sundberg wrote that Old Creamery no longer had an agreement with Kirkwood, and then on Aug. 26, that the September meeting was canceled.

Justin Hoehn, Kirkwood’s associate director of marketing, said Sundberg was unavailable for comment Friday. But he said she outlined Kirkwood’s position in her Oct. 4 email to Teahen.

In it, she noted that the costs “outweigh the limited benefits our students and/or the College would receive from it.”

Those costs include the land itself, use of parking lots, the auto tech facility and continued maintenance from snow removal to mowing. She also expressed concern over the additional traffic the facility would generate.

She said the decision came during discussion at a board of trustees retreat, which Kirkwood’s website says was Oct. 3.

“I, as well as the Board, believes this is a prime piece of land on the Kirkwood campus and we’re not willing to forfeit it at this time for the very few students who this project would serve,” she wrote.

When the collaboration was announced in April 2018, Kirkwood’s then-president, Mick Starcevich, said in a statement: “This partnership will be a significant benefit to Kirkwood Community College.”

While student productions still would be staged at Ballantyne Auditorium, Starcevich added: “The presence of Old Creamery Theatre on our campus will provide students the opportunity to study with masters of the craft, explore and work all aspects of theater operations, and perform on stage with Equity actors.”

Sundberg’s email indicated that has changed.

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“We know we can connect those students who are interested in theater with other venues in town who would also welcome their participation,” she wrote. “We also believe the potential exists the College could use that land for something which would benefit many more students in the future.”

She ended the email to Teahen by saying: “This decision is in no way is a statement about your project. It is a very worthwhile project. We do wish you well in going forward with your project at a different location. We are pleased that you are doing so well with your fundraising.”

Teahen called Kirkwood’s decision “a disappointment to a lot of arts groups in this town,” explaining that schools, arts presenters and other groups had expressed interest in using the proposed facilities, too.

“It’s important for folks to understand that this is not just a negative impact on the Old Creamery — it’s got a negative impact on a lot of other cultural and arts groups in our community. And that’s what’s really sad. We should be showcasing our talent, and this theater, and the relationship with Kirkwood that Mick Starcevich started was really going to give this an opportunity to blossom,” Teahen said.

“I just can’t fathom why that decision has been made, and why it’s being made in a closed environment where there hasn’t even been discussions.”

But the theater’s quest for a new site is going on.

“I’m optimistic that we will grow from this. It’s certainly not what I expected from Kirkwood leadership,” Teahen said.

“Our priority is to find another location for (a new theater building). We’re building a new theater, one way or another.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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