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District hires auditorium architect

The Cambridge School Board has chosen an architectural firm to study building a performing arts center, after interviewing two companies last week.

The board voted May 22 to hire Milwaukee-based firm Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA) for $24,000 to consult on the project during the pre-referendum stage.

EUA team members Kit Dailey, Andy Lyons and Eric Dufek pitched several possible performing arts center scenarios for the northern end of Cambridge High School, behind the two gyms, and near the fitness center entrance, track and concession stand. They also suggested the possibility of situating the auditorium further into the east parking lot.

EUA also recommended an April 2020 referendum timeline, which would include five task force meetings, multiple meetings involving public input and a fall 2019 presentation to the School Board.

The School Board had previously eyed a February 2020 referendum; while EUA said it could make that work, it suggested April due to traditionally higher voter turnout then, and a less rushed timeframe.

A task force to determine location, goals, cost and design for the proposed performing arts center was created on April 15. It has eyed hiring both a general contractor in late summer and presenting to the School Board in January a recommendation to set an April 7, 2020 referendum.

EAU is a large firm with more than 200 employees with offices in Madison, Denver, Des Moines and Milwaukee, Some of its past and current projects include the Deforest High School auditorium, the Madison Youth Arts Center, the Verona High School auditorium and work on schools in Monona Grove, Sun Prairie, Middleton, Lake Mills and Oconomowoc.

The School Board also interviewed Abicus Architects of Milwaukee and Sheboygan, a 20-person firm that designed the Howards Grove High School auditorium in 2016, as well as auditoriums in Kewaskum and at Sheboygan Lutheran High School.

Moving forward, EUA will work with the task force and the community to facilitate community conversations about what the performing arts center might look like.

The idea of a performing arts center at CHS has come up before. The school district last considered building an auditorium in 2012 as part of a referendum to fund renovations at the high school. Abicus Architects did the design for those renovations, including for a fitness center and commons that opened in 2014. It also drew up designs for a performing arts center that ultimately was excluded from the referendum.

Boad member Heidi Thuli said hiring either company “would result in a good product, a solid product.”

Abicus’ previously successful projects like Howard’s Grove’s auditorium and the 2012 CHS renovations did carry weight, the School Board said.

“I think Abicus knows the district and has worked with the district on enough other projects that I believe they have a strong sense of the culture of the community,” School Board member Courtney Reed Jenkins said. “They’ve done similar things. This isn’t a new project for them.”

“They’re a smaller firm with less experience and less resources but they did a good job on our project,” School Board treasurer Mike Huffman said. Huffman has worked with EUA on the Verona and Madison Youth Arts Center projects.

While Cambridge hasn’t set a size or seat number for its arts center, board members tentatively looked at 500 seats, similar to Howard’s Grove’s 495 seat auditorium designed by Abicus.

“Howards Grove’s auditorium was beautiful, if they could just pick that up and put it here.” Superintendent Bernie Nikolay said.

“I think everyone talks about what we’d want, everyone points to that,” Reed Jenkins said. “They’ve designed something that really fits well with the values of Cambridge,”

In the end, though, the School Board went with EUA.

If “we go with Abicus, we know the product is good. (However) I do feel some anxiety about the process. I feel some weight and a little bit of stress. With EUA, that lightens,” Thuli said.

“If you’re going to have a committee, set the charge, set the expectation… I don’t know that Abicus guides us through that process,” Board president Tracy Smithback-Travis said. “They have experience but I don’t know if they have a framework.”

“Andy [with EUA], that’s what Andy is. He drives and guides that,” Board member Tom Wright responded.

“I saw more in their presentation that sounded like help and guidance and advocacy,” Board Sean Marren agreed.

“They had an approach, a structure.” Smithback-Travis said.

EUA also put heavy emphasis on community outreach and surveying local project interest during the pitch.

“Community involvement is critical at every step,” Dailey said.

While some School Board members expressed concern over the size of EUA projects, auditoriums and the company as a whole, the board decided its resources and process were the best fit.

“They would make my life a lot easier I think in the pre-referendum part of it,” Nikolay said.

The costs

In the pre-referendum stage, it will cost Cambridge about $24,000 to hire EUA — $17,000 through December for developing options and working with the task force, and another $7,000 through April to finalize the referendum and help with community outreach.

Conversely, Abicus would have charged no fee for work until the referendum, because of legwork it did on the CHS auditorium design in 2012.

However, “$25,000 is really, really, really cheap if you pass your referendum,” School Board treasurer Mike Huffman said. “$0 is really expensive if you don’t.”

“Sometimes you get what you pay for,” board member Tom Wright agreed.

The fees charged by either company did not include reimbursable expenses and work by theatrical or audio consultants on the design.

If a referendum were to pass in spring 2020, both firms said they would charge a flat fee on a sliding scale for actual architectural and engineering design.

For a $6 million construction project, Abicus would charge about $363,000 in fees — 6.05 percent of the project cost, paid in addition to that cost. EUA would charge 7.25 percent of $5-7 million projects, or about $435,000 in fees on top of a $6 million construction project.

For both firms, the more expensive the project, the lower the percentage taken for a fee.

Madeline Westberg
Cambridge News & Deerfield Independent

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