Arts Center vandalism prompts volunteers to help

On Saturday morning, despite the rain, a group of dedicated volunteers showed up at the Petaluma Arts Center to repair the destruction left by vandals about a month and a half ago.

The vandal or vandals, who have yet to be caught, struck in early October, leaving a scene of destruction stunning in its scope: Every single one of the huge concrete containers and trees that lined the front of the Petaluma Arts Center and the neighboring building housing the Petaluma Visitors Center and the Downtown Association had been toppled and broken. Five years worth of carefully tended, sheltering foliage was demolished overnight.

Confronted with this unexpected crisis in the middle of El Dia de Los Muertos activities being held at the center, Virginia May, administrative director of the Arts Center, sent out an online post asking for volunteers to help. Seeing that post, Alan Allen, a Petaluma resident and founder of Community Bikes, went by the Arts Center to view the damage. Shocked at the extent of the vandalism, he offered to organize a team to clear up the debris.

Allen received an immediate outpouring of help and equipment from concerned citizens, all of who were prepared to clean up the rubble, and they set out to do so on Oct. 9. The city responded that same day with crews that came in and removed the planters and dying trees.

But the jagged concrete bases remained a danger and an eyesore, with only temporary caution signs to mark them. City workers, stretched thin, were not available to continue the efforts to reconstruct the decimated areas. Allen and John Bechtol, another a Petaluma resident, stepped in to help.

Both had been in construction for years, and they used their connections to gather skilled professionals who could get the remaining parts of the job done.

Then Marie McCusker, executive director of the Downtown Association, sent out an email blast that recruited more willing workers. Not only did locals answer the call, but three members of the Coast Guard stationed at the Two Rock training center came on board as well. One, Robert Sherwood, the Information Technology Curriculum Chief, had volunteered for a previous nonprofit project rebuilding homes in Petaluma. His experience prompted him to contribute his time and abilities to this undertaking.

"I've only been stationed here five months, but I want to get to know the community and bring something positive to my time here," he said. His enthusiasm influenced two of the students in the IT class — Jeremy Fords and Neil England, both Seabees and new to the area — to join in as well. "We heard about the destruction at the Arts Center," said Fords, "and we felt that we could help with the repairs that were needed."

They gathered on Saturday, Nov. 17 and went to work. "The biggest single cost would have been cutting the concrete," said Bechtol. "Thankfully, Pacific Coast Cutters brought in their equipment to cut a square around each irrigation pipe." The rest of the crew jackhammered the concrete to break it up, loaded it into a container and put the finishing touches on the newly dug holes where new plants will eventually be placed — all in under four hours.

"We left a clean site that's ready when the city and the businesses decide what is going in there," said a tired but happy Allen.

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