A Gift to the Community

In the fall of 2010, Robert Herrmann was asked to help do a job that might be impossible. “It’s very difficult to find somebody willing to work 60 hours a week and only get paid for 20.” That’s how Robert described the challenge before him when he was asked to be an adjunct advisor during the search for a new director for the Lopez Center for Community and the Arts.

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Robert Herrmann, on his last day at Caffe La Boheme, as he recalled the 2010 search for a director

The Community Center, located on land along the edge of Lopez Village donated by Natalie Roush and Sally Bill, had been completed 11 years earlier – opening its doors in October 1999. The Center was invaluable to Lopez, and it had become clear that management of this community asset required more than a part-time director. “None of us knew what we were doing back then,” said Lexi Taylor, a long-time Community Center board member and board chair from 2011-2013.

What the board did know was that they needed a director with deep knowledge of the community, a strong grasp of the performing arts, and a connection to the school. That’s why the first person who came to mind for Robert Herrmann was Janet Baltzer, who had lived on Lopez since the early 90s, had a theater degree, taught high school drama and had kids at Lopez School. “When I asked her to take the job, she gave me an unqualified ‘no,’” Robert recalled about that time. “It was actually a qualified ‘yes.’” At first, Janet didn’t think she had the skills. In retrospect, she was a perfect fit.

Five years after Janet accepted the job, the Center is thriving. Beyond her obvious qualifications related to the performing arts and Lopez community, the single greatest asset she brings to the role is her ability to communicate with a wide variety of individuals. “So many people walk in and out of these doors,” Janet said, when I asked her about her role as director. “We’re constantly dealing with human personalities… [and] some people have very different ideas of what the Community Center should be.”

That’s understandable given the seemingly schizophrenic nature of the Center. One day it might be host to a bat mitzvah, the next a burlesque show – as it did in 2013 when the Atomic Bombshells performed here. “Classical music and recitals can only draw so much,” said Robert Herrmann, as he explained why the Community Center under the leadership of Janet and assistant director, Robert Harrison, has done so well. “Together they are great,” Robert continued. “They’ve really pushed the envelope.”

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Janet Baltzer, Lexi Taylor and Robert Harrison

I was able to sit down with both Janet Baltzer and Robert Harrison recently to get a sense of what makes their partnership work. It’s clear that they have a beautiful work marriage. When I asked them both to describe the other, “calm” and “patient” topped their lists. With the band Super Wide Groove setting up for that night’s show right outside their office door, I immediately understood why these characteristics are important for their respective roles.

Janet and Robert manage more than 150 events a year at the Community Center. Those events fall into three categories: events produced by the Community Center (e.g., the Super Wide Groove concert), events put on by local non-profits (Tour de Lopez, Community Shakespeare), and private rentals (weddings, bat mitzvahs, etc.) Given the myriad events, that’s a lot of logistics to manage: booking, reconfiguring the space, AV set up, moving things into and out of storage. It’s also a lot of people management. More than 15,000 people attend Community Center events over the course of the year. And, as the only salaried employees of the Center, Janet and Robert coordinate hundreds of volunteers: from book keepers to lawn mowers to the board members who hired them.  Given the size of their collective job, it’s unbelievable it all gets managed by two part-time employees (Janet is 32 hours/week, Robert is 24 hours/week).

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Just a few of the events at the Community Center: (clockwise from top left) Utah Ballroom Dance Company, Super Wide Groove, Solstice Concert with Kip and Stanley Greenthal, Wizard of Oz

Among the other unbelievable things about the Center are the rates they charge for use of the building. “People laugh at how much it costs,” said Lexi Taylor. For as little as $25/hour, non-profits are able to rent out the Center. Those rates go up for private events, but the costs remain lower than any comparable building around. “It’s such a gift to have a building like this at these rates,” explained Robert Harrison.

So how does the Community Center keep its doors open when it charges next to nothing for space rental? Fundraising is the other full-time job at the Center. Funding comes from a variety of sources including: the annual Lopez Home Tour, the San Juan County Lodging Tax Facilities Grant Program, the GiveBig campaign, the Community Center’s endowment, and a lot of direct donations from community members. The Center originally got off the ground due to very generous donations from Natalie Roush, Sally Bill and Andy and Dolly Holland.

Sometimes donations come from very unexpected places. In the spring of 2013, Shawn O’Day, a long-time visitor to Lopez and president of the Richlite plywood company in Tacoma, walked into the Center and announced he wanted to donate the skate park that now sits next to the Center on Fisherman Bay Road. Later that year, the park hosted the 2013 Skatelite Retreat. “That’s the kind of randomness that comes through here,” said Janet, as she and Robert recalled this unexpected donation.

The 2013 Skatelite Retreat

After spending time with Janet and Robert and hearing the perspectives of Lopezians who know them, managing randomness is a good way to describe what they do for this community. The result is, as Robert describes it, “a gift” of an invaluable asset available for all of Lopez to use. If you haven’t benefited from this gift, I encourage you to attend an upcoming Community Center event. And, if you’re interested in contributing – even in the most random way – stop by the Center to pay Janet and Robert a visit. Their doors are always open.

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