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Cary Officials Want School to Help Create Arts District

A renovated Cary Elementary will serve as a community arts center, anchoring a downtown arts district, according to town plans.

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CARY, N.C. — Cary is the largest community in North Carolina without an auditorium of its own, but town leaders plan to change that with a multimillion-dollar renovation of an old school into a community arts center.

The town bought the old Cary Elementary school from the Wake County Public School System in 2003, with an eye to creating an arts district downtown. The building opened as a boarding school in the late 1800s but became the state's first public high school in 1907.

The building has housed the Applause! Cary Youth Theater, but town leaders have budgeted $15 million for a major renovation. Town plans call for the new arts center to "serve as as the cultural anchor for Cary's revitalized downtown."

"There has not been a place large enough for all of the arts to come together, and that's what this does," Lyman Collins, Cary cultural arts manager, said.

The 45,000-square-foot building will include rooms for art classes, display space and practice rooms. Lockers will be cleared out to make room artworks, but architects plan to keep some lockers to retain the feel of a school.

A feature of the renovation will be the transformation of the old media center into a 400-seat auditorium.

"You'll be able to sit down, really sit and enjoy," Collins said. "All the sight lines will be improved."

Some residents are excited about the potential of the community arts center.

"I think it's fabulous," resident Irma Cardinell said. "I am an artist and now have to go to Raleigh in order to take refresher courses."

Planning for the center was in the programming stage in October, with officials examining the facility, studying parking options and developing cost estimates. Architects will begin on the design phase in January, and the center is expected to open in 2010.

Plans for the arts center emerged from a study of downtown development done in 2001. The town released a more detailed scheme to support a cultural arts district in July 2006. That proposal also calls for the construction of a new, larger $73.5-million performing-arts center.

Collins said the plans will create a home for the arts – and artists – in downtown Cary.

"It'll give a real focus to the arts and a place where people know they can go," he said.