GEARHART - The city of Gearhart has cleared a hurdle for the arts and community center.

Gearhart voters decided in a 305-106 vote to ask the City Council to lease land to the nonprofit Chautauqua Center Association. The vote was about 75 percent in favor of the lease, which would allow the association to raise money to construct the center.

"Now the work begins," said Dianne Widdop, president of the association. "We've got to get out there and get the money raised." She intends to hold free events this summer at the site, like face painting, parades, pet or doll contests and games.

The land is on Pacific Way across from the Gearhart Fire Station. The proposed lease is for 99 years for $1 per year, and must still be approved by the Council.

Widdop said the association has a detailed business plan and sure sources of funding: grants, fundraising, renting the building out and membership fees. The association can apply to the county for a waiver of property taxes, she said. The land was not generating taxes before, "so the city isn't losing anything."

The building would be modeled after Gearhart's original Chautauqua building and would include public restrooms, classrooms, a large community meeting area, space for groups to meet, a kitchen with a lunchroom and a handicapped-accessible elevator, Widdop said.

She promises approximately 20 off-street parking spaces. Any event with a large number of people would be in the evening, when she said there are excess parking spaces. "In Gearhart, the sidewalks roll up at 7 p.m.," she said.

Councilors had agreed to refer the matter to an advisory vote because the land is in the center of town and an arts center might bring people from outside Gearhart into the city. Gearhart's comprehensive plan specifies that services provided should be mainly for the benefit of the locals rather than focusing on business from outside the city.

The land has been lying unused for 55 years and was recently donated to the city by the Seaside School District, Widdop said. She does not expect any event to bring in many outside people, a fear of some residents. "This isn't the Liberty Theater, for heaven's sake," she said. "It's not like we're going to advertise in The Oregonian."

The burden of paying for the center would not be on tourists and visitors, Widdop said, adding that many people would contribute. "This is a community center, and Gearhart's a community," she said. "It's to pull the community together."

Widdop said the center would be open for free for nonprofit groups such as Boy Scouts who might want to hold meetings there. For-profit organizations would be charged rent. She said the center could be used for small wedding receptions, classes, discussions, speakers or musical shows.

After the lease is granted, the association would have five years to determine the feasibility of constructing the center, and if it is not feasible, the lease would end. The association would need a conditional-use permit from the Planning Commission before beginning construction.

Widdop invites the public to "come and bring ideas and enthusiasm" to a Chautauqua Center Association meeting at 10 a.m. June 3 at the Gearhart City Hall at 698 Pacific Way.

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