Conference Center is a worthy project

Friday, September 5, 2003

You have to give the Conference Center Task Force credit. Many months after the committee's formation, and many weeks after their last public report, the task force members burst into the news again with their proposal to create the "Frank and Maxine Morrison Arts and Conference Center" in the 400 block of Norris Avenue in downtown McCook.

The idea captures the community's attention for two reasons. First, it honors one of McCook's most esteemed couples: three-term Nebraska Gov. Frank Morrison and his first lady, Maxine, a life-long advocate of the fine arts. And, second, the idea makes use of one of McCook's most cherished buildings: the 78-year-old Fox Theater with its striking, neon-topped marquee.

For those reasons the Morrison Center proposal should be pursued. That's why, even though City Council members had reservations, it was in the community's best interest to submit an application for a $200,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

The Fox is a treasure. It should not only be saved; it should be enhanced to serve as a center for the performing arts. As models for the improvement, McCook can look to the eloquent new performing arts centers in Minden and Red Cloud, as well as the prestigious Rose Blumkin Center in Omaha.

Despite the allure of the proposed arts and conference center, the council and the community are right to be cautious. The city, already strapped financially, is concerned that the responsibility of operating the proposed facility would fall on the taxpayers's shoulders. And there's also the question of the project's estimated total cost of $2 million. Even if the state approves the $200,000 grant, that still leaves at least $1.8 million to raise locally.

Other questions remain to be answered. How much money can be raised through private donations? Who will manage the facility? Will the city have to come up with part, or all, of the operating expenses?

While those are sobering questions, that does not mean that the idea, in some form, does not have merit. It only means that the tough questions need to be asked sooner rather than later.

The Conference Center Task Force is to be complimented for bringing the idea forward and the council is to commended for allowing the grant request to be submitted to the state. But, before a final decision is made on what shape the arts and conference center will take, a lot more thought needs to be given to what the community needs and can afford.

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