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Petaluma transferring Polly Klaas Center to nonprofit

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Polly Klaas wasn’t the best student or a top athlete.

Before her death 25 years ago, kidnapped and murdered by Richard Allen Davis in a wicked incident that put the eyes of the nation on Petaluma, the rambunctious 12-year-old excelled as a performer, and was a lover of song and dance. She aspired to act professionally and enjoyed being a part of school plays.

To honor her memory and pay tribute to her passions, the Polly Klaas Foundation is pursuing an agreement with the city to take ownership of the Polly Klaas Performing Arts Center, a forgotten downtown building located in a triangular block at the intersection of English, Post and Western streets.

The Recreation, Music and Parks Commission last week pushed forward a recommendation for Petaluma City Council approval, supporting a transfer of the 107-year-old property once the nonprofit successfully completes a $1.5 million fundraising campaign for renovations.

“We feel the time has come to meet the needs of our local youth and renovate a vacant building that was named in Polly’s honor, and to create this great asset for the community,” said Raine Howe, executive director of the foundation. “We’ve really framed this as stepping out of the darkness and into the light.”

Once the city’s coffers went lean after the Great Recession and recreation funding became scarce, the building slowly fell into disrepair. It was initially shuttered in 2000.

The city originally purchased the property from the Christian Church of Petaluma in 1971 with the intent of demolishing it and expanding City Hall, which is located across the street. However, after the acquisition, concerned residents pushed back against the city’s plan, prompting officials to assign the facility to the Recreation Department, which named the building the Five Corners Community Center.

In 1994, the city council tried to figure out how it could pay homage to the person Klaas was before that fateful night in October 1993. They passed a resolution to name the building the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Center, hoping to transform the site into a hub for youth theater.

For years, the city tried to generate enough revenue to renovate the building and sufficiently operate it so that vision could be realized. The most noteworthy attempt was in the early 2000s when a nonprofit group known as the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Theater Company raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and began outlining projects to kick start the venue.

But in 2006, that campaign was derailed. The theater company’s executive director, Jack Stein, was found guilty of embezzling approximately $25,000 of the funds raised, and the remaining balance of nearly $170,000 was placed into an account that’s currently being held by the city.

The most recent attempt to renovate the building was Measure X, a 2012 parcel tax to fund the city’s dwindling parks and recreation efforts. The ballot measure, which needed a two-thirds vote, fell just short with support from 62 percent of the local electorate.

By that point, full-time parks staff had been slashed in half and has since remained relatively the same.

In the aftermath, city officials have turned to Petaluma’s robust nonprofit community and cultivated numerous partnerships to prop up parks and recreation services, said interim City Manager Scott Brodhun.

Projects like the Miracle League special needs baseball facility at Lucchesi Park, Petaluma wetlands preservation, and the community boathouse have come to fruition thanks to that model, he said.

“We’ve pursued partnerships very aggressively because the demand didn’t stop just because we were experiencing significant reductions in staff,” Brodhun said. “Those are ways we’ve worked to meet unmet need.”

Lined with stained-glass windows from its previous days as a church, the red-brick building is filled with 100 seats and would have access to nearby parking lots owned by the city.

Events and weekday rehearsals would be purposefully scheduled so they wouldn’t conflict with municipal hearings at City Hall, Brodhun said.

If the foundation has to cease operations, the city will have the first option to purchase the building at a price equal to the cost of initial renovations. The two parties could also identify a buyer that would fulfill its intended use.

Although, Howe doesn’t anticipate that kind of scenario. Through discussions with Sonoma County economic development officials, she identified about 200 artists that couldn’t find a venue recently, and 50 of them responded to a survey from the nonprofit that sought to gauge interest in the space.

“It’s not as though this idea just came up the other day, and we’re just winging it,” she said. “We’ve done a lot of work to get to the point where we’ve had the confidence to say we wanted to take this on.”

The venue would contract with so-called anchor tenants like Petaluma City Schools and Cinnabar Theater to ensure consistent use of the space, Howe said. Cinnabar had been in discussions to partner with the city and potentially expand its programs before the recession stifled those talks.

The fundraising campaign would ostensibly launch sometime next year following council approval.

The city would provide $40,000 from the former theater company’s funds at the start of the campaign to assist with initial costs before transferring the remaining balance once the building changes hands.

“We haven’t moved the ball much without partnerships, and I think this is an opportunity to do that,” Brodhun said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)