LA GRANDE

Downtown venue seeks funding for use permit

Owners want to make downtown space viable for arts, music

By Emily Adair, The La Grande Observer

Helping out

Contributions for HQ’s renovations can be made at www.eofilmfest.com/donate or sent to Eastern Oregon Film Festival, 112 Depot St., La Grande.

After having to turn away several local and visiting performers because it didn’t have the proper use permit, the owners of a downtown La Grande building are currently seeking funding to help make the space a viable venue for community arts and music.

Eastern Oregon Film Festival Director Christopher Jennings uses HQ, 112 Depot St., as a base of operations for the festival and for his own company. Jennings champions the community enrichment that comes with arts and entertainment, and believes La Grande resident Scott McConnell’s story is the epitome of that notion.

McConnell’s band came through La Grande to play a show around 2005.

“That introduced me to the town,” he said. “It definitely let me know what La Grande had to offer, and it was part of the reason I (later) decided to move here.”

McConnell earned his doctoral degree in Missouri and accepted a position at Eastern Oregon University in 2012, and he’s been teaching there ever since.

McConnell is also one of the three men who recently opened a business in downtown La Grande, Side A Brewery.

“So here you have someone who came to town, discovered the music scene, moved here because of it and is now literally putting money back into the community,” Jennings said.

Jennings knows that not everyone who comes to La Grande for the music will open a business here, but he thinks there are other clear benefits to having arts programming.

Among them, Jennings said, are the opportunities to “enrich the quality of life” of local residents and engage current and prospective students and faculty members at EOU.

Jennings said he knows it can be difficult to quantify the benefits of arts programming in terms of added employees or dollars.

“But there is a ripple effect,” he said. “People from Baker City and beyond come to town for our shows. That’s new people from out of town spending money in our restaurants and in our hotels, in addition to the local residents being active downtown.”

That is the motivation behind Jennings and the EOFF board of directors’ fundraising campaign to bring the downtown space into compliance with use permit requirements.

In early March, Jennings received a few unexpected phone calls from city officials notifying him that he did not have the proper permit for the events he had scheduled at HQ.

Jennings had registered the space as office retail space, but now that EOFF and the arts community use HQ for public events, that a use permit is required. The last day to get the paperwork in is today. Jennings said Wednesday he expects he’ll have everything filed just under deadline.

“If he doesn’t get it in by then, he’s out of luck (until the next submission period this summer),” City Planner Michael Boquist said.

Boquist said his office only recently learned of HQ’s permit discrepancy.

Boquist said he received a call from the police department after Jennings requested a liquor license for an upcoming event.

“The police department noticed that there were a lot of people, so they called us just to inquire about it,” Boquist said.

His office soon discovered HQ’s paperwork needed to be updated.

Boquist said his office can schedule a special meeting to expedite HQ’s approval process, where it’ll be “up to (Jennings) to justify his application.”

Boquist said his office sent Jennings an email with a list of things to do.

“We also gave him permission to hold certain committed events, if he could get (the size down) to a certain level,” Boquist said. “He wasn’t able to do that.”

Jennings said he canceled all of HQ’s scheduled events because, in part, he didn’t want to accidentally violate any rules and “be slapped with the fines for that.”

The events that were canceled included a comedy album show and recording by Nick Johnson, a La Grande native, and two events featuring visiting musicians. The changes have also displaced the launch of the EOFF season.

In addition to updating HQ’s permit type, Jennings hopes to raise $12,000 to renovate the building. Half of that would be raised privately by the EOFF board and include contributions from the public. The other half, Jennings hopes, would come from the city as matching funds.

“We have about $1,100 in the bank, plus $1,800 dedicated to the project,” Jennings said.

He said those funds will easily cover any costs associated with the permit application process.

The remaining funds will cover construction costs.

HQ’s immediate renovation is needed to eliminate fire hazards and to bring a bathroom into accordance with the American Disabilities Act. Jennings said private storage and office space will be removed to expand the public venue space. At least one of the two bathrooms will be made wheelchair accessible, and the doors will need to swing outward.

“That’s in case there is an emergency,” Boquist said. “You can’t pull doors open as everyone is pushing you out.”

Jennings said he is not disputing any of the city’s recommendations.

“I understand why that needs to happen. I just wish the timing was better,” he said. “There’s already such a huge hole in the arts programming in this community (with the) Liberty Theatre in limbo right now.”

He said La Grande has a lot of potential in the arts and music scene — the community just needs to cultivate it.

“We’re in the crosshairs of musicians traveling from Boise to Portland and from Seattle to Salt Lake City. Those bands want to stop here and perform,” he said.

Jennings also said that EOFF’s involvement in the community could help La Grande prosper even more than it already has.

“It’s only a matter of time before someone we’ve worked with for eight years at EOFF gets that $200 million picture and wants to shoot in La Grande. (Community support of the arts is) an investment, but it will pay off,” he said.

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The La Grande Observer
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