History of the Clark Center

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An Invitation from Cliff Clark

Dear Clark Center Friend,

It was a hot, muggy afternoon in 1974 as hundreds of us exited the narrow doors of the Arroyo Grande High School gymnasium. Yes, we had been entertained; the talent was exceptional. However, the experience was overshadowed by the discomfort we all felt by sitting on hard, metal bleachers. Our youngest daughter Corki had been performing with her classmates on a rickety metal stage that had been stored somewhere in the all-purpose gymnasium.

As we left the gym after that performance, Mary Lee and I vowed to each other that we would see to it that a state-of-the-art performing arts theater would replace the high school gymnasium before we passed away.

Mary Lee and I at the ribbon cutting in 2002

Mary Lee and I at the ribbon cutting in 2002

Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was so much talent among the Arroyo Grande High School students– from the singers in Mr. Mussard’s voice classes, to the musicians and thespians in Mr. Houck’s theater classes– some of whom have since gone on to make their living in the arts and entertainment industry. There are graduates of AGHS who have become professional musicians and songwriters– some performing locally with the San Luis Obispo Symphony, some have formed their own bands, and some have even impressed Disney Studios and are now acting in first-rate movies! Yes, there is and always has been talent among the students at Arroyo Grande High School.

Our original budget was under one million dollars, but seemed to rise each time we reached our goal. One million, then three million, six, seven, eight, finally $9,000,000 was the number looming over our heads.

We sold t-shirts and tiles, bricks and benches, bathroom stall plaques and personalized seats in what would later become The Clark Center. We raised thousands of dollars, but we needed millions of dollars, and our fundraising volunteers, including Mary Lee and myself, were not getting any younger.

Frankly, there were times when nearly everyone doubted whether we would reach our financial goal– nearly everyone except Mary Lee and me. We knew that if we failed to raise sufficient funds during our lifetimes, our own estate would eventually fund the building project. Without the numerous bequests of the south county residents, I doubt we could have kept the fund-raising going all those years and seen our goal come to fruition. Everyone had their own opinion about the project, but Mary Lee and I forged ahead to fulfill our earlier promise to replace the bleachers and gymnasium, and further the arts at the AGHS campus for the children of the South County.

theatre-shot-technicolor-jesusx270The years of fundraising were eclectic, to say the least. As I mentioned earlier, we sold everything and anything that we could print our logo on and peddle at local events such as the Harvest Festival, the Pismo Beach Clam Festival, the Grover City Christmas parade, high school functions– really anywhere we expected to see locals coming out to attend. We thought that only local money could be raised for such a locally personal project. We met as a group we titled the Promotional Committee which was made up of such dignified locals as Katcho as well as several of the High School and Lucia Mar School District employees. We were a small yet dedicated group.

We planned events that included entertainment by school children. One such group were child singers traveling through San Luis Obispo County– from Africa! While traveling up the 101 freeway from Los Angeles to San Francisco, the group leaders realized they needed a place to stop between the two major city destinations and our city was the perfect distance for one day’s travel. The African singers agreed to perform as a fundraiser for us if we put them up, which Hardy and Judy Hearn were happy to do at the Edgewater Motel.

We had raised a few hundred thousand dollars, but it had taken us over ten years, and we were losing the confidence of our backers. We changed our fundraising direction and formed a guild of local folks that would agree to pay annual dues, attend any and all events that we put on for the fundraising purpose, and continue to seek support in our community. The dues raised $20,000 annually, which seemed really impressive until the architects informed us that the building costs had just gone up again, another million dollars due to changes in the requirements for earthquake safety issues. It became apparent to all of us that the Guild would not be able to keep up with the rising costs of the project.

We set out to find a professional fundraiser. After several failed attempts at this, we found Liz Chambers, who had been a successful fundraiser for many national non-profit organizations. Liz educated us about grant writing and taught us to raise millions of dollars– more than I had ever dared to dream for in large donations.

construction-clarkx270We were finally on our way to having sufficient funds to build a state-of-the-art performing arts center. One thing I had always insisted on was that we have every dollar in our hands BEFORE we would break ground. I refused to be connected to anything so major in our part of the county that would have to rely on borrowed money. This project was to be fully funded or it would not be built. Thankfully, a wonderful couple in San Luis Obispo had been watching our progress through the years and they shared my theory of ownership without liens. Mr. and Mrs. Forbes generously donated the final one million dollars needed to put our fundraising over the top. The ground breaking began!!

One of my saddest regrets is that The Clark Center was not complete during the lifetime of Bob Hoagland. He and his wife put as much time and energy into the fundraising as Mary Lee and I did, but they died too soon to see the beautiful building come to life. Mary Lee lived long enough sit proudly in her seat alongside me. We watched many wonderful performances together.

Enjoying the Bird Dogs: The Everly Brothers Experience Nov. 5, 2016

Enjoying the Bird Dogs: The Everly Brothers Experience Nov. 5, 2016

Now our goal is to continue raising funds to keep our beautiful Clark Center state-of-the-art – which is a term whose definition changes as technology changes. We need wireless technology that did not even exist when we were dreaming and fundraising. Those 617 beautiful seats that we all enjoy now will need new upholstery. The bathrooms that impress all who tour them, especially on the women’s side, will need repair and possibly replacement in the years to come.

The fundraising is not yet complete. I will still “remember” the Clark Center in my own estate plan in order to continue the dream of having this impressive cultural treasure in the South County– something that gives all of us who call this part of the county home so much pride and pleasure. The Clark Center started out as one of Mary Lee and my pet projects and was well worth everything we put into it. We have provided the children and grandchildren at AGHS a beautiful place to perform. However, it has grown into something bigger and better in the long run. It has grown into a cultural center for the entire Community. I hope that you will join me in supporting the Clark Center for the Performing Arts this holiday season. Remember your donation is tax-deductible!

Thank you for your support.

Your neighbor and friend,

Cliff Clark