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Sheldon Jackson to give core campus to arts camp

SITKA, ALASKA
According to a statement from the college’s trustees, the name Sheldon Jackson will stay attached to the property to memorialize the history of what was once Alaska’s oldest educational institution. But the future will be up to the Arts Camp.

Sitka Fine Arts Camp Executive Director Roger Schmidt says he's fully aware of the work that needs to be done.

“There’s an unlimited amounts of deferred maintenance and repairs that need to happen, but the other thing we’re getting is a dream,” he said. “And that I guess is really what’s motivated my board of directors, our organization, and all our kids – the idea of what we can do with the arts, and what we can do with community.”

The dream for the nearly 40-year-old arts camp includes North Pacific Hall, which can be used for housing.

“And then behind it is the old ceramics building,” he said. “We hope to see kids doing art in there.”

And there’s Whitmore Hall and Fraser Hall, which have office and classroom possibilities. Whitmore also has housing space.

“This is Yaw (Hall), it’s a set of classrooms,” Schmidt said. “I see an arts space, where our visual arts will be. I hope that into the future it can become a year-round type of arts cooperative place.”

The camp is getting the Hames building. It was home to a wellness center, but it closed after Sitka voters rejected a proposal to have the city buy it in October.

“We’ll certainly use it for our programs, because physical theater and social dance are really popular classes at camp and we need a large space like that. We do circus arts, we do acrobatics, things like that.”

Schmidt says he hopes the group that worked to keep Hames open will show interest in doing something with the building during the rest of the year.

At the center of the Quad, behind the flagpole, and the bell, and the plaque marking this place as a National Historic Landmark, is Allen Memorial Hall. An auditorium is inside. The camp is getting that, too.

Inside, walls have been stripped down to studs. When Sheldon Jackson College ran out of money, this building was under renovation. Work stopped immediately. There’s little doubt that re-starting that work will take some serious effort. But Schmidt also sees serious potential.

“Just looking at these beams, and these mammoth entryways – you don’t find ceilings that high anymore. They just don’t make them,” Schmidt said, walking around on the second level of Allen Hall. “And it gives you this feeling of openness and expansiveness and, heck, creativity and inspiration. Why not?”

The Sitka Fine Arts Camp began its life on this campus in the early 1970s. The year before the college closed, the college asked the arts camp to leave.

“When we left, I think I probably even said the cliché, ‘Never again.’ We were really frustrated, it was a really tough time for us,” Schmidt said. “We felt like we had been here for years and we were good tenants and we brought revenue in. All these things. But it was such a tumultuous time for the college.”

Eventually the camp found a home at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. The college, meanwhile, worked on ways to handle its closure, including a possible deal with the University of Dubuque. When those plans fell through, Schmidt said his friend Lisa Busch, who is executive director of the Sitka Sound Science Center across the street, suggested a meeting with one of the trustees, Gary Paxton, to discuss the possibility of taking over the core campus.

“And I’m sure my first response was ‘You’re crazy. I mean, just crazy. You can forget that idea',” Schmidt said.

But eventually, he was convinced to have the meeting. He says Paxton was an enthusiastic advocate from the beginning.

Schmidt and the arts camp board of directors spent three months looking at revenue models and business plans, and decided to give it a go. Schmidt says it’s hard to estimate how much money all of the repairs and renovations will take. But the organization will launch a capital campaign soon, and hopes to raise $500,000 before camp begins in June.

And while the talks to transfer the campus from Sheldon Jackson College to the arts camp happened between officials from the two organizations, the rest of this journey will be a community effort.

“It makes us think again as a community of the place as a campus, rather than just a couple buildings here and there,” Schmidt said. “And when I see the peeling paint and when I see the shingles, what I see by the patched shinlges is a roof that’s not leaking right now because there’s a great maintenance guy that’s been working tirelessly. One man and a pile of shingles going up on that roof and patching that up leak. To me that’s inspiring. And when I talk to Ron, who’s been here a number of years, he says ‘I just love the place. I can’t stand to see it fall apart.’ And had it been another person who was just doing it for the money, they’d be like, ‘Y’know, that building’s just going to go to pieces anyway.’ And I feel like, if one guy, for the last number of years has staved off the elements singlehandledly, it’s almost impossible for me to conceive that with 50 to 100 people all pulling the sled together, or whatever cliché you want to use, we can’t keep that roof on for another couple years, that we can’t keep the place painted and we can’t keep the place patched. And if we can do those things, the buildings will survive. And as the buildings survived we can get them used, and as the buildings get used we can bring in revenue, and as we bring in that, then we can go from piecemeal patching – sort of a triage repair situation – to a long term maintenance and renovation vision.”
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