To be or not to be? That is the question the members of the Civic Center Board asked themselves about the Jefferson County Civic Center Project. Was this the right project for Fairfield and Jefferson County? Was this the best time to go ahead? Were the major financial resources needed to complete the project at hand in the community? If yes, where should it be located?
There was one man who could help answer these questions—Gary Vance, professional fundraiser from Panora, Iowa. Gary had gotten to know the community well during his fundraising activities for the new Fairfield Public Library.
Gary first met with the board in February 1999, and over the next 18 months they continued to meet every two weeks, planning the project and feasibility study interviews in great detail. Then, in September 2002, Gary conducted 60 interviews.
“The feasibility study was a major decision-making process that we had to go through to see if we were going to do it,” explained board member Suzan Kessel.
It was a look-before-you-leap procedure. By working with architects Martha Bell and Kelsey Mullen, the board learned what the community wanted and roughly how much it would cost. Now the board embarked on due diligence to determine if the funds needed to bring the project to completion would be available.
“This was one of the finest boards, the finest committees that I have ever worked with,” Gary said. “I loved these people. There was a combination of characteristics there that was just incredible. First, they had a dedication and commitment that was second to none. So you knew they were going to be right there with you. And then the energy, the passion that they brought to the project was just extraordinary. . . . They just would not let this thing go down.”
The feasibility study was conceived to not only register opinions but also to provide potential supporters with powerful visuals of the proposed center.
First, a list of the community leaders needed to be drawn up. These were people who were visibly active in the community as well as behind-the-scenes leaders such as successful businesspeople and farmers, who had in the past offered generous financial support to projects they felt would be a lifelong asset to the community. Through the library project, Gary had identified many of these significant donors.
And the location had yet to be determined. Ron Bovard’s offer of ten acres of land on Highway 34 east of town was tempting. Likewise, the Jefferson County Fair Board had vacant land it could provide west of town. Both these parcels would come with a zero price tag.
Other options were purchasing the Overland Sheepskin building on Highway 34, east of town, or the Old Armory Building right off the square. Each of these locations would need an architectural conceptualization to present the possibilities to potential donors.
That’s where Kelsey Mullen came in. He had returned to Fairfield in March 2000, after making the civic center project his senior thesis for his architectural degree from Iowa State, and then spending a year with Architectural Workshop, an innovative firm in Denver. When Coralee Dey found out Kelsey was in town, she phoned him with an urgent request.
“Kelsey, I am here in a board meeting with the Civic Center group,” she said. “We want to move forward and address some serious design issues. Can you come right now and discuss this with us?”
Kelsey rushed over a few minutes later in his t-shirt and jeans, and then was a bit embarrassed to be so underdressed. Nevertheless, he was able to clearly articulate what he could do by providing a set of professional drawings for the different sites. These drawings would become an essential part of the feasibility package that Gary would present during his interviews with potential donors and civic leaders. Kelsey and the board established a contract for architectural services, including a timetable for their delivery.
As the board watched Gary Vance in his preparations for the feasibility interviews, their confidence grew. There was no doubt that Gary was a skillful and enthusiastic professional. The response from the community was overwhelmingly positive and upbeat. It was a great moment of victory after all the years of dreaming and planning, with 85 percent of respondents giving the project strong support.
Several board members were moved to tears as they read these responses. One comment pointed to Fairfield’s heritage in supporting the arts: “Like our nice new library, a high quality new auditorium and civic center would certainly be one of the most attractive features of our community.” People were really excited to make this happen.
Furthermore, some unexpected bonuses came their way: an anonymous donor had come forth with an interest in an endowment pledge of $1.5 million, and three other top prospects had been identified for giving $300,000, $250,000 and $200,000. This was extremely heartening.
The board members felt a deep sense of gratitude for the town’s support, for the opportunity to participate in something so meaningful, and for the hand of providence, which had supported them so far with good connections, a great team, and a magical sense of timing that brought the right people to their door at the right time.
Now, however, bigger challenges lay ahead. In the final pages of the feasibility report, Gary called on the board to maintain its unified vision, provide “inspirational leadership,” and bring in other key players. Raising the funds would be a major undertaking.
Throughout the feasability study, one powerful theme had emerged repeatedly. Despite the financial incentive of acquiring rural land at no cost, it quickly became clear that the vast majority preferred a downtown location and a brand new building to augment the town center as a cultural district. The board, many potential stakeholders, and architect Kelsey Mullen simply couldn’t imagine a better spot than in the very heart of Fairfield.