LITTLE FALLS -- A decade after its founding, the Great River Arts Association is finally moving into permanent quarters in downtown Little Falls.
By early October, the organization's small staff hopes to occupy a portion of the 22,000-square-foot building at 122 First St. S.E., known locally as the "old Ben Franklin dime store."
In recent years the turn-of-the-century storefront has been home to Ron's Variety Store, which has moved to another downtown location.
Throughout the summer, dozens of volunteers have been rushing to refurbish enough of the building so GRAA can meet its October move-in deadline.
The rest of the yet-to-be-named "community art center" will be completed in phases, assuming that a soon-to-be-announced $1.5 million capital campaign is successful.
If GRAA has its way, the center eventually will include a walk-in gallery, a 150- to 200-seat performance center, a dozen classrooms, a multimedia center and an art-supply and gift shop.
After years of planning and searching for suitable space, GRAA purchased the building in February 2001 from Garth and Marie Meschke of Little Falls for $110,000, its appraised value.
The Meschkes donated $35,000 of the purchase price and much of the balance came from a Blandin Foundation grant, said a GRAA spokesman.
The foundation, based in Grand Rapids, has underwritten a long-term community development project in Little Falls, which has targeted "arts and cultural" improvements, among other goals.
"The reality has not yet sunk in and the work ahead is daunting, but the staff and board of the GRAA know this venture will make a tremendous difference in the cultural life of our community and the vitality of downtown Little Falls," trumpeted a GRAA newsletter announcing the building purchase.
Matt Borgen worked on the interior of the Great River Arts Association's building in downtown Little Falls.
The purchase was the first step in satisfying one of the principal reasons for creating the nonprofit arts organization in 1992.
"We have been seeking out a location for an art center since the beginning," said Bill Adkins, the group's executive director. "It was one of the primary goals in founding the organization."
At one point in the Blandin planning process, the creation of an art center was rolled into a much larger proposal that included a community recreation center with a swimming pool, skateboarding park, performance art auditorium and many other facilities.
But the current stand-alone art-center plan emerged when the downtown building unexpectedly became available for purchase, documents and interviews show.
In the meantime, GRAA retained a Twin Cities consulting firm to study its building plan and lay the groundwork for a capital campaign. The final report, not released to the public, was presented by Currie & Associates in late July, Adkins said.
Delayed for now, the campaign eventually may include funds for the art center renovation, as well as improvements to a Hands of Hope (social service organization) facility and a therapeutic pool at St. Francis Hospital in Little Falls, Adkins said.
The fund-raising goal could reach as much as $2.5 million, including $1.5 million for the art center, $500,000 to establish a permanent arts-related endowment fund and the balance for the other projects, he said.
Not deterred, GRAA volunteers have been plugging away, with help from a small bank loan, at the art center improvement project. In recent months GRAA even has offered a few arts classes in the partially finished facility.
"The main thing is to get into the building, and our presence will make it easier to do other programming there," Adkins said. "And during the campaign, having us in the building will be helpful to its success.
"The walls are up for our offices, we have a place to plug in our computers and phones, and hopefully it will have enough environmental controls so the space is not too hot or cold," he said with a chuckle. "And that is the extent of what we can do right now."
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