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Portland considers the future of Keller Auditorium: 'It's kind of nearing the end of its life'

With a need for improvements and seismic upgrades, the city is considering a major renovation for the Keller Auditorium, or building a new theater venue.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As one of Portland's oldest performing arts centers, city officials say the Keller Auditorium is in need of some major upgrades. They're exploring options to either renovate the theater or build a new venue to fill its unique role.

"There's no other stage in the Portland region that can accommodate traveling Broadway shows," said Karl Lisle, spectator venues program manager for the city of Portland.

The 3,000-seat venue was built in 1917 and renovated in 1967. But the city, which owns the Keller, says by today's standards, it needs a lot of work, including seismic upgrades.

"It's kind of nearing the end of its life," Lisle said. "At some point in the next decade, it's really going to need to get completely renovated or replaced."

The city awarded grant funding to the Halprin Landscape Conservancy to study their options for the Keller.

"You realize the work is so intensive and basically everything in the building would need to be touched," Lisle said. "You get up into a cost level and a construction timeline level that maybe it makes sense to look at other alternatives."

One alternative the city is exploring is building a new venue. They asked local property owners able to accommodate one to let them know if they're interested in exploring the idea. Lisle said eight have responded, including the Lloyd Center, Portland State University and OMSI.

"We didn't make any promises about commitments about funding or moving forward at all, but we wanted to see where could it go," Lisle said.

One renovation concept involves closing Southwest 3rd Avenue to traffic, expanding the front of Keller Auditorium and creating a plaza. Planners will share that idea with the Portland City Council in late September.

"I think it's really appropriate for the city to be taking the time and the money to really look at all the options possible to make the best decision for the city," said Robyn Williams, executive director at Portland'5 Centers for the Arts, which runs the Keller.

Williams said the Keller brings in more than half of the Portland'5 revenue, money they can't afford to lose during a potential two-year renovation. She said they would need an alternative location to host Broadway productions in the meantime.

"The closure would be a huge hit to us financially, but also the lost jobs; we employee hundreds of people," Williams said. "It's the money that we take and use to help subsidize local nonprofit use of all of our theaters."

Lisle admitted this phase of planning the Keller's future is very fluid.

"You know, honestly, we're sort of figuring this out as we go," he said.

That includes funding which is still up in the air, though Lisle estimates the price tag would likely be somewhere north of $200 million for either a full renovation or a new venue. In a perfect world, he said they wouldn't have to choose between the two.

"That would be really exciting, incredibly expensive and not funded — currently," Lisle said.

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