Officials offer sneak peek at $34 million arts center

Even from the now dark interior of the Dr. Rodney R. Lafon Performing Arts Center, workers can be seen busily laying the structure of a $34 million facility that represents the school system’s commitment to the arts.

Nationwide, school systems are losing or downsizing arts education programs in budget cuts, yet St. Charles Parish voters approved a $42 million bond issue in 2015 that included the performing arts center in Luling.

The 69,000-square-foot center’s location is also notable with it neighboring a $10.5 million community center and $7 million St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office complex on Judge Edward Dufresne Parkway.

The center’s grand opening will be Aug. 25.

Community and industry leaders got a “sneak peek” of the center, which is about 75 percent complete, at 275 Judge Edward Dufresne Parkway.

St. Charles Parish Public Schools Superintendent Felecia Gomez-Walker told the crowd the most asked question about the building is whether it’s large enough to hold a graduation.

Gomez-Walker’s reply was simply, “No.” Housing a graduation there would have required a building three to four times bigger and “the cost would have been just ridiculous.”

Instead, she invited visitors to see firsthand what the center will offer.

Center Director Chris Melohn outlined plans to include a memorial to Dr. Rodney R. Lafon in the lobby. The display will include two of Lafon’s trumpets that will be used to tell his story and why the center was named in his memory.

The center will house two performing spaces – the main theater that can seat 1,301 people and a “black box” theater that can be adjusted as needed per performance and seat up to 200 people.

Melohn explained its adaptability to suit each production. The ceiling has a grid where students can perform some of the work above the stage. The back wall has a large doorway that allows large items to be loaded into the theater.

The center also will include an education wing with three flexible use studios, two technology studios, two visual arts studios, a television production suite, a piano lab, small assembly room and practice rooms, a scene shop and loading dock, and prop storage facility.

“Every K-8 child will experience a production at the center this season,” Melohn said. “They won’t just see the production, but also work with the artists in a workshop.”

Touring productions that come to the center will be open to students and the public, he added.

Some Satellite Center classes are moving to the arts center in June.

Melohn said digital media and interactive media classes will soon relocate there, along with TV production class.

John Rome, chief plant services and security officer, said the arts center has a targeted completion date of July 13.

Although $35 million was allocated for the center, it will come in nearly $1 million under budget, according to Rome.

“Credit should be given to the [School} Board and superintendent for allowing the construction design team to plan for the work in three phases,” he said.

Rome said the approach allowed the team to seek competitive bids that trimmed cost from the project.

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