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A theater to honor Polly Klaas

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When 12-year-old Polly Klaas was abducted from the bedroom of her picturesque home on Fourth Street a little over 25 years ago, the horrific crime was permanently seared into Petaluma’s collective memory. By the time the girl’s murdered body was located two months later alongside Highway 101 in Cloverdale, a few thousand residents had mobilized around the clock to locate the missing seventh-grader whose remarkable theatrical talents and aspirations were tragically cut short.

The unprecedented community volunteer effort to find her gave birth to the Polly Klaas Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps locate missing children across the country. Housed in a modest house on Howard Street, the foundation operates on a $600,000 annual budget funded principally by automobile donations and grants.

With abundant referrals from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and thanks to the dedication of its small staff and team of volunteers, it has helped more than 10,000 families locate their loved ones since its inception in 1994. Ninety-seven percent of the missing children reported to the foundation, many of whom are runaways groomed by online predators, make it home safely.

Now, the foundation is preparing to relaunch long-awaited plans to honor Polly’s memory by establishing a performing arts center aimed at serving Petaluma youth. According to the foundation’s executive director, Raine Howe, an estimated $1.2 million is needed to renovate a city-owned building across from City Hall on Western Avenue that has sat vacant for nearly 20 years after officials condemned it as unsafe.

Originally home to the Petaluma Christian Church, the 109-year-old building was purchased in 1971 by the city, which intended to level it and turn the space into a parking lot for City Hall. But those plans were later scrapped, and city officials voted in 1994 to rename the red-shingled building the Polly Hannah Klaas Performing Arts Center with a goal of one day transforming it into a hub for youth theater, singing and dancing.

Cinnabar Theater initially agreed to manage the center following its renovation, and in 2000 a group of volunteers from the first graduating class of Leadership Petaluma created a non-profit with a board of directors who got to work fundraising. But a few years later, after the organization’s executive director, Jack Stein, was convicted of embezzling $25,000 of the money raised, the organization dissolved.

Since then, the city has held the remaining $169,000 of monies raised in a special account that could help fund a structural engineering study and jumpstart a renewed fundraising campaign to finish the job.

Howe says her group has completed a preliminary feasibility study and she is currently working to secure commitments from local organizations like Cinnabar Theater and Petaluma City Schools who she hopes will become partners and tenants once the renovation is complete. The building could also house youth dance productions and possibly small spillover musical shows from the Mystic Theater booking agent, according to Howe.

Cinnabar Executive Director Diane Dragone confirmed last week that her organization is very interested since “we’re currently bursting at the seams and the 100-seat theater would be a perfect annex for us.” She added that Cinnabar’s Young Rep program serves about 400 to 500 young people annually in three productions so it would be ideal for them to have their own space downtown.

Petaluma City Schools is supportive and very open to discussing options, according to District Superintendent Gary Callahan, but he said that legal considerations, coupled with the district’s plans to build its own performing arts center from voter approved bond funds, would likely prevent the district from becoming too deeply involved.

Raising the $1.2 million for the building renovation will not be easy. Recent fundraising efforts to help victims of California wildfires have impacted many of Petaluma’s non-profit organizations which are reporting that donor fatigue appears to be on the rise.

Howe concedes that unless there is a strong commitment from community donors, the project won’t proceed. Still, she anticipates a capital campaign will get underway sometime later this year.

“We’ve done our homework and have to believe it will come together,” she says. “We have to try. What better way to honor Polly?”

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)