By Myers Reece | Flathead Beacon | August 31, 2021
Jane Karas, Flathead Valley Community College’s president, gazed up at the catwalks high overhead in the cavernous performance hall under construction on campus. As her accompanying guests exchanged oohs and ahs, Karas smiled.
After $20 million in fundraising, years of planning and no small amount of dreaming, FVCC’s Paul D. Wachholz College Center is expected to open in spring 2022.
“This will be a great opportunity for our students and our community as a whole,” Karas said. “There are really endless possibilities.”
The roughly 58,000-square-foot center will also feature a multipurpose activity complex with a fitness center and gymnasium that can double as an additional event venue, as well as an art and exhibition gallery, a recital hall, outdoor amphitheater and other spaces.
But the centerpiece is the performance hall, a world-class venue with state-of-the-art sound and lighting capabilities. It will have 1,000 seats, up from the originally planned 750, and the college is still offering seat-naming rights to donors as it rounds out its fundraising efforts.
Karas said CTA Architects and the college fine-tuned the acoustics and lighting by working with expert consultants who have experience at large performance halls across the country. In addition to hosting musical acts, lectures and other performances, the venue will serve as home for the Glacier Symphony.
“The hall is being constructed with symphonic acoustics in mind as the primary focus, as the sound footprint of the hall,” Glacier Symphony director John Zoltek said earlier this year. “That’s really great for us — it’s the best way to enhance and deliver what we do onstage.”
Upon opening in the spring, Karas said the performance hall will initially host local events as it’s introduced to the community. Then she anticipates bigger-name acts from out of the area to start up in the fall, although she said the public will have to wait to find out who they are.
“We’ll have some very exciting performers to kick off next fall,” she said.
The college center is named after Paul Wachholz, a local businessman who donated $4 million to the project. The FVCC Board of Trustees unanimously voted in March of last year to approve a $25.8 million bid from Swank Enterprises to lead construction.
While FVCC officials look forward to the center’s opening in the spring, they’re also excited about students returning to class for the fall semester, which kicked off last week. One immediately evident change was the shifting of all student services over to the Learning Resource Center, which is referred to as the student union.
“One of our goals this summer was to make sure we’re serving our students even better with a one-stop shop,” Morgan Ray, FVCC’s director of library services, said.
Karas said low unemployment often impacts community colleges’ full-time equivalent enrollment, but she’s expecting solid student numbers once again at a school that regularly ranks as the fourth-largest collegiate institution in the state behind the two main universities in Bozeman and Missoula, as well as Montana State University Billings.
FVCC is strongly encouraging face coverings, and administrators are leading by example, but Karas said “the Legislature required all public institutions to follow no more than the state regulations, and right now the state isn’t mandating masks.”
“We believe it’s very important for the health and safety of our students and our college community for everybody to be wearing masks to protect one another,” Karas said. “The science has shown that masks are effective. I think we’re all tired of wearing masks, but we’re doing it out of consideration for each other and to be sure that we can continue classes face to face.”