Two years later, the Civic Development Corporation (CDC) raised $85,000 toward purchasing the land on W. 13th Street and to plan the building of a new arts facility. By 1971, local contributions and pledges totaling $275,000 were made to the arts center by businesses, the Ashtabula Foundation, families, and individuals to make it a reality. Fred Toguchi was hired to design the new building. Sam Goldstein headed up the building committee, and Larry Hughes of Buckeye Builders was awarded the contract to do the construction. In 1973, our new facility was opened and the building was only as large as the front offices and gallery space.
In 1975, the Civic Development Corporation campaign raised $175,000 for the arts center to add a music wing onto the building. When originally constructed, no true performance space was part of the plans. The music wing added a recital hall and individual instruction studios and opened in 1977.
G.B. Repertory Theatre had been established to bring the theater experience to our audiences during the school year. The music wing’s recital stage was adapted for its use. Tables and chairs were set up in the audience space with local companies, and individuals purchasing whole tables or seats at tables with their friends for the many outstanding shows produced there. The Good Life Singers, a community choral group, was founded in the mid-1970’s and also performed regularly in the music wing. The arts center’s very strong dance program was turning out students who went on to more advanced training and some even made dance their careers.
The next major area of development came with the addition of the theater wing in 1987. Due to a greater interest in theater throughout the area, it was eventually decided that a space needed to be built to specifically house the theater arts.
Straw Hat Theatre’s summertime shows were born in summer of 1967 at Lake Shore Park and in the following years were produced in a tent at Walnut Beach. In 1980, the arts center applied for and was granted the funds from the CDC to move Straw Hat Theatre from Walnut Beach (where it was falling victim to vandalism) to the grounds of the arts center. Also with the support of the CDC, a catering kitchen was added to the facility.
In their 1985 campaign, the CDC granted $200,000 of the necessary $390,000 to build the performing arts wing within the main building, and on June 4, 1986, ground was broken for the new theater.
It was with the help of some very dedicated individuals and businesses that the theater finally took shape. The balance of the project was funded through a very generous anonymous gift and individual donations from the community at large. Major fundraisers were launched, one of which was the selling of the nameplates on each of the theater chairs.
The fundraiser was so successful that the arts center was able to put a nameplate on each arm of each chair.
Once the actual building was up and open, many hours—both working and volunteer—were put into getting the theater ready for opening night. The chairs were extracted from the old Shea Theatre downtown and refurbished with help from Goodwill Industries and the Astatic Corporation. The painting of the entire wing was done completely by volunteers.
When the theater finally opened in a Gala Celebration on January 31, 1987, it was a far cry from the theater we have today. Because the budget was so tight, there was no money to equip the theater—there were no curtains and only a meager lighting system. Still, the space was considered by many to be the best around.
The first theater performance held on the new stage was Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor, staged February 6-8 and 13-15, 1987.
With the addition of the performing arts wing and the increase in patron numbers, the parking lot could not accommodate everyone during the winter months. The Ashtabula College Committee, part of the Kent State University-Ashtabula Campus was (and remains today) the owner of the property adjacent to the arts center. The college committee agreed to allow us to expand our paved parking area onto their property if we received CDC funding, and the expanded parking lot became a reality.
In the early 1990’s, programming continued to grow and new staff were hired. In 1996, the new dance wing was opened. Built with a $200,000 CDC grant, the dance studios now boasted one of the finest facilities in northeast Ohio. The flooring in the studios is constructed like that at Lincoln Center in New York City.
In the fall of 1996, the arts center was honored to receive a “Best of the County” award from the county’s economic development organization, Growth Partnership. Public recognition as one of the county’s best assets was an accolade enjoyed by all the staff, volunteers, patrons, and supporters of the arts center, who had worked so hard to make it into the fine facility it had become.
In the early 2000’s, we received a CDC grant to enable us to upgrade our electrics in both of our theaters, address our poor drainage situation behind our building, and to add lights to our parking lot.
In 2010, another CDC grant paid for the patio and sidewalks, box office, and concession stand, and enhanced lighting at our Straw Hat Theatre. The Ashtabula Foundation granted us the funds to refurbish the interior of our main building, something that had not been done since the initial construction in 1973.
Our work continues on today with theater, dance, music, and visual arts productions and programs being offered year-round.