Founded in 1981, Highlands Ranch has flourished into a community of nearly 100,000 people, 29,000 homes, acres of open space and parks, several schools, four recreation centers and a handful of shopping centers. A development is underway at one of …
Founded in 1981, Highlands Ranch has flourished into a community of nearly 100,000 people, 29,000 homes, acres of open space and parks, several schools, four recreation centers and a handful of shopping centers. A development is underway at one of the last parcels of open land: 100 acres of retail, residential and commercial space, east of Lucent Boulevard and north of Target in Town Center North, called Central Park.
Yet, as the community approaches its buildout, some people say a key feature is missing: an events and performing arts center used for theatrical productions, art exhibits and social gatherings.
“We struggle internally to find venues and space,” said Jamie Noebel, director of community relations of the Highlands Ranch Community Association (HRCA), which hosts nearly 100 community events — ranging from holiday celebrations to outdoor concerts — each year.
In early July, the HRCA initiated a feasibility study on building an events and performing arts center. Surveys asking for input on the center and its uses were emailed to residents and sent to homes. The topic has since garnered support and opposition from residents. While some say it will fill a need of venue space for cultural arts in the community, others worry about location and funding.
In early August, the Highlands Ranch Community Association will take into consideration the feedback of about 55,000 residents and decide whether to move forward or hold off on building such a center in Highlands Ranch — a project at least five years down the road, Noebel said.
“It will take a village to bring this together,” she said, “an entire community to embrace this concept.”
A need for space
This isn't the first time the community has been presented with the possibility of an events and performing arts center. In the late 1980s, the Highlands Ranch Metro District proposed a similar idea. It was put on the ballot, which residents ultimately voted against. The need wasn't there, Noebel said, because the community was in its infancy stage.
The idea resurfaced about a year ago to accommodate a need for space for a range of activities: theater productions, meetings and conferences, weddings, senior services and more.
The community's current venue options are limited, said Noebel. The HRCA's four recreation centers are primarily used for fitness. High school auditoriums have limited access during the school year. The Highlands Ranch Mansion is cost-prohibitive.
Following five or six stakeholder meetings with organizations in the area — including the Highlands Ranch Metro District, Douglas County School District, Lone Tree Performing Arts Center, Parker's PACE Center and others — the HRCA determined the need for a center as high.
To fund the feasibility study, HRCA partnered with an organization that has similar needs for space. Since its inception in 2006, St. Luke's Performing Arts Academy, located west of South Broadway near the Highlands Ranch Parkway intersection, has grown from 26 kids in one camp to 743 kids in 12 programs. The academy — a 501(c)(3) organization with a staff of nine and an 11-person board —partners with high schools in the community to host productions.
As the program continues to grow, more space is imperative, said Jim Ramsey, director of the performing arts academy, which is not a ministry of St. Luke's United Methodist Church.
“We are more or less tapped out,” Ramsey said. “Either we maintain or we figure out different ways of growing.”
The two parties have a similar vision of a center used for educational and cultural opportunities and events that enrich the community.
'Not a priority'
Karen O'Keeffe, a working artist in Highlands Ranch, isn't against the idea of an events and performing arts center, she said. But she is against funding one.
“I'm for the arts, I think this is a great idea,” she said. “I just don't feel that it's a priority right now.”
O'Keeffe received the survey via email and immediately posted her thoughts on a Highlands Ranch Facebook page, disagreeing with the notion of spending millions of dollars on a center when there are four high schools in the community capable of providing space for art-related activities. Also a substitute teacher for Douglas County School District, O'Keeffe said she would rather see investment in schools.
Her post garnered about a dozen responses.
“As long as the funding for this arts building doesn't come from our quarterly HRCA assessment or taxes,” one user wrote.
“I don't think the school auditoriums are actually big enough,” another user commented. “I think fine arts is where Highlands Ranch is grossly lacking.”
Funding for the proposed center has yet to be determined. Noebel said a number of routes would be explored, including private funds, capital campaigns, partnerships and homeowners' assessments.
For Maria Lauer, funding community centers and events is part of being a taxpayer. The resident of 26 years said she supports a dedicated space for the arts. High school auditoriums have limited access during the school year, she said, and limited space in general.
“We are a pretty large community right now,” Lauer said. “I think that our community is worth investing in.”
Filling a niche
Some residents argue that there are enough performing arts centers surrounding Highlands Ranch. Lone Tree Arts Center opened six miles east of the community in August 2011. Parker Arts, Culture and Events Center (PACE) opened 14 miles away in October 2011.
But, they both fill a niche, executives say, as would the proposed Highlands Ranch center.
“Demand in the south metro area for arts and cultural activities is very strong,” said Elaine Mariner, cultural director of PACE. “People like to have something close to home.”
Lone Tree Arts Center was put on the ballot and approved by citizens in 2008. The $18.5 million center hosts regional, national and international touring artists, as well as theatrical productions and children and senior programs.
After an 11-year process that included pushback from the community, the $21.7 million PACE was built, which hosts national touring shows and popular music groups.
An event and performing arts center in Highlands Ranch would focus more on “homegrown” local productions, Noebel said.
“The goal is not to compete,” she said, “but to enhance what is already available.”
The HRCA envisions a centrally located space — a civic center-type building equipped with a 400- to 700-seat theater — utilized by HRCA's Cultural Affairs Association, a 501(c)(3) created in 2001 to provide educational opportunities and cultural events in the community. A few popular events hosted by the association are Highlands Ranch Days, Classic Car Show and Classical Music Series.
Ramsey said he dreams of a multi-level building in the hub of the community with a theater that seats more than 750 people and multi-use classrooms.
“Arts are a huge part of what defines our culture and community,” Ramsey said. “It has to do with how and why people come together.”
Construction costs and financial projections are part of the feasibility study, which HRCA expects to be completed in early August. The HRCA Board of Directors will ultimately decide whether to move forward with the proposal.