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Special to the News-Press: Save the Civic Auditorium

by JOSH CANTAMESSA
| November 1, 2022 10:22 AM

Growing up in Wallace I heard a lot of stories about the history of the town. And, thanks to the hard work and forethought of the people in power throughout its history we have been able to preserve the things that make the town so great today.

The things we see today — the things that make Wallace what it is today — are still here thanks to the people who came before us. The homes, the downtown buildings, the hillsides, the Depot, etc.

But, the best historian and cheerleader for Wallace I knew was my dad, and the things he talked about the most were the things that were no longer here. When he saw the town, he saw all that was here, but also all that was no longer; the things he enjoyed as a kid that he was saddened that his kids would not get the opportunity to enjoy. The Samuels, the old high school, the Wilma and the Grand, the Providence and Wallace Hospitals, etc.

And it was hard to fully miss something you never knew in its existence, but these buildings are the ones I have always sought to learn more about — to fill in the gaps in my own knowledge of the town. It always boggled my mind when seeing pictures of these architectural marvels, that anyone in their right mind could tear them down — or let them decay to the point where they were beyond repair.

And then it started to happen to the buildings I once knew growing up. The Wallace Elementary School came down with little fanfare. The west wing of the High School destroyed in the name of progress. A town renowned for its preservation of history quickly destroyed the monuments that raised thousands of its citizens — taking the easy route in the name of progress. Denying future generations the opportunity to marvel in their majesty.

Before the wrecking ball destroyed it all, some people of means stepped in and saved the Civic Auditorium and the East wing of the High School.

The Civic Auditorium was not originally a part of the school district, not a part of a school building. It was designed as a place for the town to come together. It was not built as a means to a profit, it was built to enrich the lives of the citizens of Wallace, and the Silver Valley. And for nearly 60 years it did just that. Hundreds of thousands of people have attended events in that building over the years. It is not just a part of Wallace history; it is a part of Idaho history — the loudest gym in the Northwest.

About a year ago I reached out to the Superintendent of the Wallace School District to find out the status of the building. It had been nearly 20 years since it has served as a High School gymnasium, and several years since any events that I knew of had been held in the building. Rumors around town did not leave me with a good feeling in my stomach. Mr. Howard was very candid about the condition, which at the time mostly consisted of ongoing issues with the boiler and asbestos concerns. He explained to me the people who were leasing the building and who were responsible for the upkeep, and I felt that it was in good hands.

Then last winter I heard more rumors of big issues with the building and talked to some people about my willingness to get involved and help however I could. I didn’t hear back. So it was a pretty big surprise to me at the recent public information meeting about the Civic Auditorium that a committee of 19 people had been formed, and had been meeting in since last Spring.

What wasn’t a big surprise to me, but a gut-wrenching verification of the rumors, was the condition of the building. Major roof leaks. Rot. Mold. Structural instability. Water, water everywhere.

Despicable.

I want to make it clear that I felt Mr. Howard did a commendable job presenting this information with no bias. He presented at the meeting 5 potential solutions along with estimated costs for each. He was very open to any scenario and all input, and he, in my opinion, at no time tried to steer people to any of the proposed solutions.

And, while I believe the superintendent and school board are ultimately responsible for the current condition of the building, this did not happen overnight. This is 20 years in the making — if not 30-40 years. Previous school boards, superintendents, and the group leasing the building all share in the shame for what we are now left with.

The school district was gifted this facility 70 years ago, and slowly over time has been derelict in maintaining it. Over the last 20 years the Civic Auditorium has gone from a weekly or multiple times a week destination for everyone in town to gather (its original and ultimate role), to a secretive, neglected clubhouse for a select few.

Unacceptable.

But this is Wallace. And we don’t give up that easily. Like the United States, this building was built by the people for the people of Wallace. I would dare say the Civic Auditorium is more the centerpiece of the Center of the Universe than the Depot. More people from the area have spent more time in that building than they did in the Depot when it functioned as a depot.

Tearing it down is not an option.

This town needs this building, this town misses having events in this building, this town needs it repaired and functioning again. Please go to WWW.WSD393.ORG and make your voice heard. I don’t necessarily agree with any of the proposed options, but the closest to my vision would be option 3, to renovate the auditorium and build new storage and restrooms.

Ultimately, this building needs to be outside of the school district and in a 501C3 non profit — similar to the Depot. Initial investment needs to be made to stabilize things so we can start using the facility again for events. There is already a model in place like this down in Moscow. They saved their old high school and it is now a Cultural and Arts Center known as the 1912 Center. That is what Wallace needs, and there are grants available.

In an inhabitable building, minor investment could make the auditorium function as a sometimes movie theater. Things like boxing, professional wrestling, conventions, sporting exhibitions could be held there. A rehabbed East wing could house the Barnard Stockbridge museum, a day care, and a youth center. It could easily pay for itself with someone driving the ship. For the last 20 years it has been a boat adrift at sea.

And it is a big boat, and the bill we are left with is not small, but there can be no cost placed on an enriched life. We are all better off with this facility functioning as it should, and if we don’t act now — we will never have something like this in Wallace again.

We saved the downtown, the Depot, the pool, and protected the hillsides. It’s time to bring Civic Auditorium back to its glory so we can all celebrate together again.

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