Downtown Revitalization

701 Whaley expansion planned

jwilkinson@thestate.comJuly 27, 2012 

The popular 701 Whaley art center in Olympia — which includes an art gallery, artist-in-residency program, apartments and party space in the huge former mill village community center — is about to get even bigger.

Entrepreneur and developer Richard Burts has signed a contract with the Hardee family to purchase the back half of the sprawling building, which includes a swimming pool (once indoor, but now the roof is gone) and a gymnasium. The structure has been occupied by the Hardee’s Neil Parts Rebuilders since 1961.

The sale likely will close in November, both Burts and Hardee family spokesman Randy Hardee said. Neither would disclose the sale price. The addition would increase the art center’s size to 47,000 square feet from 37,000 square feet.

“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to finish what we started and bring the whole community center back to one common use,” Burts said.

Burts estimated the renovations will cost about $2 million. Burts and his partners spent about $7 million renovating the first phase of the building. Environmental work should begin in January with construction following that, he said.

Among the ideas Burts is considering for the 10,000-square-foot expansion is a “black box” theater seating about 500 people — an experimental performance space usually in a large square room with black walls and a flat floor. The need for a mid-sized black box theater has been cited in surveys for downtown Columbia for more than a decade.

Burts also is kicking some other uses around.

“We have to throw everything out on the table and see what sticks,” he said. “But we want to offer people a totally different … feel. We want to offer people bigger spaces as their events grow.”

The building at Whaley Street and Olympia Avenue was built in 1909 and served as the community center for the former Olympia and Granby Mill villages. It was the heartbeat of the community for decades, where children played and swam and adults came together for dances and dinners.

But the mills closed and the community center’s storefronts and 53 windows were bricked up for a furniture warehouse.

Promoter Jack Gerstner bought the building in 1996 and held art shows and concerts for a brief time until the roof collapsed in a 2000 rainstorm.

For years, Gerstner raised donations for repairs but didn’t do the work. He sold the building to Burts and partner Robert Lewis in 2007 in part to avoid jail time for allowing the building to become a public nuisance – a home for rats and feral cats.

The developers – with help from California-based developer Bob McConnell and government and community groups – brought the building back to its former glory with sometimes excruciatingly focus on historical accuracy. At one point, Burts was captured on film scrounging through a landfill trying to find a piece of one of the building’s century-old columns.

Since then, 701 Whaley has become a wildly popular location for weddings, events like the What’s Love art happening on Valentine’s Day and even corporate meetings. It also hosts the 701 Center for Contemporary Art, which includes a live-work apartment for an artist in residence, gallery space and performances.

The building’s rebirth helped the resurgence of the village, which has seen its Olympia and Granby mills renovated into loft-style apartments. And it was a precursor to other advances in Columbia’s arts scene, such as the Tapps Arts Center and Main Street’s First Thursday event.

Wim Roefs, chairman and executive director of the 701 Center for Contemporary Arts, said the building appeals to different groups of people, and that has made it successful.

“There is a cross-pollination between different groups,” he said. “There are just a lot of things going on. And all of that is combined with the cool look of the building — it’s both old and contemporary. People think its cool, and that’s because it is cool.”

Presently the back section of the building exudes a cool of its own – if you like mountains of auto parts and a turn-of-the-century swimming pool filled with vines and scrub trees.

“We’ve got stuff back there that hasn’t been touched” in decades, Hardee said.

Burts said he had been negotiating a sale of the building with Randy Hardee’s father, George Hardee, since 2007 – just before the economy derailed.

The deal was growing close to a conclusion at Christmas when the elder Hardee, a World War II veteran who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, passed away unexpectedly Jan. 6.

Randy Hardee said the business will relocate to another location either in downtown Columbia or West Columbia, though it will be strange to leave the building that has housed his family’s business since 1961.

“But I love that the old building is being refurbished,” he said.

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