Retired Van Wert choir director Larry Schaufelberger, center, conducts student choirs in the 1,200-seat auditorium.
VAN WERT, Ohio - Nationally known performers rarely play high school auditoriums, but then, this isn't your average high school auditorium.
Van Wert City Schools and the Van Wert Area Performing Arts Foundation are opening the $9.6 million Niswonger Performing Arts Center of Northwest Ohio tonight with a high school band and choir concert. Country singer Lee Greenwood performs tomorrow, and gospel duo Sandi Patty and Larnelle Harris take the stage Sunday.
The 1,200-seat auditorium is grand and glorious and exactly what you would not expect to find in a small, out-of-the-way city of 10,700 people.
Paul Hoverman, left, president of the nonprofit performing arts foundation, which will operate the center, and Van Wert High School Principal Bill Clifton, see to last-minute details in the lobby of the $9.6 million facility.
"Great things happen when people come together. This is a prime example," Van Wert Mayor Don Farmer said. "This is not government money sitting here. This came about because of people coming together."
Superintendent Cathy Hoffman said the school district did not contribute one cent toward construction of the performing arts center, which also features a 175-seat, tiered lecture hall.
The center is connected to the district's new, $30 million high school and middle school complex on State Rt. 118 but was paid for entirely with private money.
Van Wert alumnus and philanthropist Scott Niswonger donated $2 million to get the project started and later increased that by $1 million.
The Van Wert County Foundation kicked in $2 million, including $750,000 to be used for operating the center for 10 years. Central Insurance Cos. donated $1 million, and two local banks gave a combined $900,000.
Paul Hoverman, president of the performing arts foundation, said the rest of the funds have come in gifts from more than 500 donors ranging from $10 to $25,000.
Doug Wolf, a 1971 graduate of Van Wert High School and head of the percussion area of the University of Utah school of music, practices with a youth orchestra in preparation for tonight s opening of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center of Northwest Ohio.
"Cathy [Hoffman] had a vision of a high school auditorium," he said. "When Scott [Niswonger] came on board, we went from the idea of a high school auditorium to what we have here today."
Ms. Hoffman said plans gradually grew from a $2 million to $4 million facility to a $6 million center and, ultimately, very close to $10 million.
"Scott Niswonger does everything top of the line," she said. "When it's all said and done, he'll have over $3 million in it, and that inspired the community."
The school and auditorium were designed by the Buehrer Group of Maumee, but Mr. Niswonger and an architect from Greeneville, Tenn., where Mr. Niswonger helped build a similar facility, worked with the Buehrer Group to come up with the final product.
The walls are covered with more than 2,600 panels of West African Anigre wood. About 105,000 pounds of granite from India and Italy were used inside and out, and the grand lobby has a ceiling that is 55 feet high at its peak with 33-foot windows.
The Niswonger Performing Arts Center of Northwest Ohio.
"There aren't many kids in the state of Ohio who get to use a facility like this," Ms. Hoffman said. "We are just very lucky - very, very lucky."
Doug Wolf, a 1971 Van Wert alumnus who heads the percussion area of the University of Utah's school of music, was in town yesterday to practice with the high school choir and bands performing the first show at 7:30 tonight.
Now a percussionist with the Utah Symphony and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, he said the center not only gives Van Wert students a top-notch place to practice and perform, but it also will expose them to professional musicians.
"I think it's going to be great because the more you can draw professional experience into education, the more likely students will be to get excited about making music a career," Mr. Wolf said.
Van Wert school Superintendent Cathy Hoffman's vision grew to include a 175-seat, tiered lecture hall.
While the school district owns the facility, it is leased to and operated by the nonprofit performing arts foundation.
Ms. Hoffman said students have "first dibs" on the auditorium and lecture hall during the school day and already are using them every day.
The foundation hopes to attract visitors from a 75-mile radius of Van Wert, marketing director Cheri Oechsle said.
It also hopes the center will attract business and industry to the community along U.S. 30 about 95 miles southwest of Toledo.
"It gives us a competitive advantage over other communities our size," said Nancy Bowen, economic development director for Van Wert County. "It's just one more thing, and a huge one more thing, that I think will put our community over the edge."
An open house is planned from 2 to 4 p.m. on March 25. For more information, go to www.npacvw.org.
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: email@example.com or 419-353-5972.