Outdoor venue in works for Community Arts Center

Over the last several years, downtown Williamsport has undergone a renaissance of sorts, as new restaurants, shops, art galleries and more emerge consistently and become favorite spots.

Now one more can be added to the list: an outdoor performance stage, nestled in the courtyard between the Community Arts Center and the Sun-Gazette building, the brainchild of Community Arts Center Executive Director Rob Steele.

To him, it seemed like an obvious addition to downtown.

“All the vibrant downtown areas, wherever you go, have outdoor spaces: outdoor dining, everything,” he said.

“The idea is to have another fun place downtown. For First Friday, for years, the Uptown Music Collective or others played in that courtyard, and now we’ll have a formal spot,” he added.

It’s been a long road to get the plan going, though.

“I’ve wanted to do this for about eight years,” admitted Steele. He had to wait, however, until other projects were completed, like the extension of the second-floor outdoor balcony.

Steele was admiring the view from that balcony not long after its completion with a few executives from Susquehanna Bank, and he decided to show them the courtyard and explain his idea.

“I walked down to the end of balcony with some people from Susquehanna Bank and told them the plan and said, ‘Don’t you think this would be a great idea?'” said Steele. “Six months later, it was put it into action.”

Mike Petrine, Regional President for Susquehanna Bank, saw the potential right away and was “very excited about the partnership.”

“We’ve helped the Community Arts Center with small projects in the past, like chairs and seating, but nothing at this level,” said Petrine. It’s a great opportunity, he added, especially because of the location.

“Banks go through cycles with the people in charge, and sometimes the commitment to the community ebbs and flows,” said Petrine. “But our roots in Williamsport go back to the 1850’s. We have a long history of service and we want to continue that.”

The bank is funding the project at a total cost of $50,000, the first $30,000 of which already has been presented to the arts center. The remaining $20,000 should be given before the end of the year, said Petrine.

The stage will be on a platform accessible by two steps on either side, topped with a wooden lattice-style roof, with outlets wired into the walls behind so that performers can simply plug in and play. Lighting will be installed behind the stage, and a row of decorative glass blocks will run along the bottom of the platform. It will be a bring-your-own-seating space – although Steele said that at some point he’d “love to have tables out there” – and the expected capacity is between 200 and 250 people.

One of the major perks of the stage, said Steele, is that it’s free to use. People interesting in using it only have to schedule the time and date on a calendar that will be accessible through the arts center’s website.

Because of the bank’s financial support of the project, the official name of the stage will be The Susquehanna Bank Stage at the Community Arts Center.

The bank and the arts center aren’t the only ones looking forward the project’s completion.

“We’re as excited as anyone to see it happen,” said Bernie Oravec, publisher of the Sun-Gazette. The courtyard sits on land that is actually owned by the newspaper and has been leased to the arts center building for nearly a century.

“We like the idea of having a good neighbor and keeping our community vibrant,” said Oravec. He said that Steele showed him preliminary plans, and he was on board from the beginning.

“I think it’s a great idea, anything we can do to further promote the arts, live music, live theater, is a plus for the community – and it’s a nice, safe venue right in downtown.”

Oravec said that no demolition work will be required for the stage, but he did confirm that part of the work will include the installation of a locked gate between the two buildings. There’s a high amount of pedestrian traffic between them, as people use it as a shortcut to get to either Hepburn or Fourth streets, but that path takes them directly through the loading zones of both buildings. By preventing that dangerous foot traffic, Oravec said, the gate will be a good safety feature.

Steele is eager for the work to start.

“We expect to break ground in February or March, and it should take about 60 days to complete,” he said. “The target opening is May of 2014.”

The potential for the stage is enormous, said Steele, who is looking to the future of the downtown area and how much positive impact a project like this can have. He sees the possibility for businesses and organizations to sponsor events at the stage like comedy nights, Third Thursdays, poetry slams, Shakespeare readings and more.

“It’s meant to be a spot to showcase local talent,” he said. “My great hope is that it’s not just limited to music, that people will think outside the box and see it as much more.”