Wells Fargo Center for the Arts announced plans Wednesday for a $10 million upgrade to its building and grounds, starting next month with major improvements to the main auditorium.

The first stage of the four-phase project is a $2.8 million renovation of the 1,600-seat Ruth Finley Person Theater, built in 1974 as part of the Christian Life Center and taken over by the arts center in 1981.

"For 32 years, this facility has served as an arts center for the community, largely due to our staff working around the limitations of the building," said Rick Nowlin, the center executive director. "Now it's time to make some changes. This is a big step in the history of this organization."

The Ruth Finley Person Theater, the largest of several performance spaces at the center, will be closed for renovation from May until mid-August. Some programming will continue in other areas of the center, including the lobby, Nowlin explained.

The announcement comes seven months after the opening of the new $145 million Green Music Center on the Sonoma State University campus in Rohnert Park, which instantly became the preeminent performing arts center in the region. It has to date placed a strong emphasis on classical music, jazz and higher-profile performers.

The Wells Fargo Center continues to book a varied assortment of singers and musicians, dance troupes, comedians and TV celebrities, and has in recent months emphasized family shows and community events.

"We feel like we complement each other very well in terms of the types of programming we offer," Nowlin said of the relationship between the Wells Fargo Center and the Green Music Center.

Long-range improvements to the Wells Fargo Center have been under discussion since 2007 when Nowlin was hired by the center, and $2.5 million toward the cost of the initial phase already has been raised.

"We've been planning this project for several years," he said.

Donors include the Ernest L. and Ruth W. Finley Foundation, the Lytton Rancheria-Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, Alan and Susan Seidenfeld and the board of directors of the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation.

The next three phases of the upgrade will be done over the next three to five years, while fundraising continues, Nowlin said.

"We're committed to doing these improvements in a fiscally responsible manner, continuing to raise the dollars we need, and initiating each phase when we have the funds to do it," Nowlin said.

During the first phase of remodeling, the auditorium's stage will be expanded and modified to allow better sight lines for the audience. Piano storage rooms at both sides of the stage, which limit the view from some seats, will be removed.

New removable seats, equipped with cup holders, will be installed on the main floor of the auditorium to allow the center staff to open up that area for some events. Balcony seats will be refurbished.

The ceiling above the stage will be raised eight feet to allow installation of better stage lighting and other equipment. The Christian Life Center's original baptismal pool will be removed.

A wall behind the stage will be removed to allow better access from the backstage area and make it easier to stage large productions, such as dance performances, Nowlin said.

"When we brought in 'Riverdance' last year, it took several visits from them to figure out how to work with our stage," he said.

The subsequent phases, which will cost $7.2 million, will include elevator installation and balcony restroom renovation, improvements to the center's outdoor spaces, a new roof and lobby windows.

The project is being led by Berkeley-based ELS Architecture and Design, whose work at the center began in 2010 with renovation of the lobby.

Dubbed "Bridge to the Future," the project is seen as part of an ongoing effort to improve the center, Sherry Swayne, chairwoman of the center's board of directors, said in a prepared statement.

"We're looking forward with great excitement to the next 30 years," she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com.