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New life for Polly Klaas Center

For nearly two decades, the Polly Klaas Performing Arts Center has sat vacant, windows boarded, red paint fading from the distinctive former church building on Western Avenue.

Now, a nonprofit that shares a name with the center commemorating the victim of one of Petaluma’s grizzliest crimes wants to reopen the theater for performances. The Polly Klaas Foundation has launched a $1 million capital campaign to renovate the venue as a community theater.

“It’s a community resource that we need,” said Raine Howe, executive director of the foundation. “People see that building in disrepair with Polly’s name on it and it’s just heartbreaking.”

Klaas was 12 in October 1993 when she was kidnapped from her Petaluma home, prompting a search that drew national attention. Her body was found near Cloverdale two months later, and her murderer, Richard Allen Davis, remains on death row.

The following year, the Petaluma City Council dedicated the center to Klaas, who excelled at performing arts. Cinnabar Theater used the center to stage shows, but by 2000, the building was deemed unsafe and closed.

Various failed attempts at fundraising to renovate the theater over the years include a Petaluma Leadership class nonprofit whose executive director embezzled funds, and a sales tax measure that was defeated at the ballot box.

The latest effort cleared a big hurdle this month when the city council signed a letter of intent to transfer the building to the Polly Klaas Foundation, pending the group raising $1 million for renovations.

“It has the potential to be a beautiful, meaningful space here in town,” Councilwoman Kathy Miller said. “It’s unfortunate that it’s in a state of disrepair. I am thrilled that we are moving forward to renovate it.”

Howe said the foundation has a headstart in its campaign. The city transferred to the foundation $65,000 from a $170,000 account set aside to renovate the center. That, plus promises of inkind donations of materials and labor add up to about $315,000 of the foundation’s $1 million goal, Howe said.

Added Howe: “$1 million is a lot of money, but the project itself is very compelling. It has sparked a lot of community interest.”

The aging facility, which was built in 1911, needs a new roof, heating and air conditioning system, sheet rock, plumbing and fire sprinklers, Howe said. The foundation is launching a GoFundMe page under Polly-Klaas-Community-Theater-project, and is planning a campaign kickoff fundraiser at Lagunitas in the spring.

Howe said the goal is to raise the money by June 2021, at which time the city would transfer the property and the foundation would start construction, which could take up to a year.

The last performance at the center was a Cinnabar Theater production of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in December 1999. Cinnabar has again expressed interest in using the theater to expand its youth drama program, said Diane Dragone, the executive director.

“We would want to have a presence in downtown,” she said. “The downtown would be a nucleus for the kids to come on a much more regular basis.”

Besides youth theater, Howe envisions the venue hosting Tedx talks, West Side Stories series, concerts and adult plays.

She said reopening the theater that bears Klaas’s name is a fitting way for the community to honor her memory.

“We will never change the outcome of what happened to Polly Klaas, but we can change how we think of her and think about the way that she lived instead of how she was taken from us,” Howe said. “This is stepping out of the darkness and into the light.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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