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See all Sonoma Gives stories here

In the wake of the catastrophic Tubbs fire, staff at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts went into high gear to assure the curtain would rise again as quickly and safely as possible at the damaged Santa Rosa landmark.

Although flames didn’t reach the 1,600-seat Ruth Finley Person theater, damage to the facility’s east wing was extensive.

Insurers are still determining financial losses, while the center has begun fundraising campaigns to fill in the gaps. Special post-fire donations total $60,000 so far, while the center exceeded its 2017 year-end goals by 6 percent.

The center’s immediate challenge, though, was to assure the public, while checking on the welfare of its employees and volunteers.

As management reached out to determine the safety of staff and supporters, and as rumors swirled that the nonprofit center had burned to the ground, its new Director of Marketing and Patron Services Anne Abrams fielded scores of media inquiries from across the country.

Adding to the confusion, a $5 million renovation was underway, with portions of the campus boarded up for construction before the firestorm hit. Unknowing passersby thought the devastation was even more extensive. Abrams, on the job for just a week, scrambled to reassure the public the venue was mostly still standing.

About 30,000 square feet of the center’s 140,000-square-foot campus was destroyed, including a 400-seat auditorium and performance space utilized by North Bay Stage Co.

A storage and workshop building also was lost and, particularly disheartening, a two-story classroom building was gutted, part of the complex used by the Anova Center for Education, a nonprofit school for children and young adults with autism. (It has since reopened in other areas of the LBC.)

Also destroyed were some 400 musical instruments used for the center’s Music for Schools lending library and summer music camps, like the esteemed Mariachi Camp. Materials housed in the storage shed by Roustabout Theater also were ruined.

Additionally, the center lost much of its landscaping and irrigation systems, and its sculpture garden was damaged, including many of the old-growth redwood sculptures by renowned local artist Bruce Johnson.

Seven staff members lost their homes, as did four board members and nearly 10 volunteers.

In the midst of so much tragedy and devastation, the center’s management team was determined to help restore a sense of normalcy to the community.

When insurance adjusters surveyed the damage following the firestorms, they estimated the nonprofit would likely reopen in January. Instead, just a month after the Tubbs fire raged along Mark West Springs Road, it was show time at the LBC. Doors opened Nov. 6, providing visitors with a sense of community and a place to connect.

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“It’s really a place that’s central to our community as an arts center and events space,” said Rick Nowlin, the center’s president and CEO. “It really is the community’s place.”

He credits the early opening to the tireless efforts of the center’s operations team, who worked in unison with a mitigation company.

“It was an unbelievable commitment, a nonstop cleanup,” Nowlin said.

Before the center reopened to the public, nine shows were canceled, with six more hoping to reschedule. First responders and those affected by the fires were welcomed back with a monthlong “Pay What You Can” ticket program for select shows, a gesture of gratitude and goodwill.

The financial impacts to the center are still unclear, but Nowlin said the net losses were about a quarter-million dollars in the month the center was closed.

“It really is too soon to tell,” he said. He estimates it could take several years to crunch numbers and calculate the overall impacts.

Robin Seltzer, the center’s development director, said she’s been encouraged by fundraising efforts over the past few months. The fires hit at a critical time for year-end gifts and pledges, as the tax year was drawing to a close.

“We had to rethink and retool all of our (appeal) letters to be current and respectful and have the right tone,” she said. “So far things look OK, but we’re going to have to work harder to make up for the losses. I’m very pleased by the response to date.”

The center established the LBC Fire Recovery Fund to help with the unanticipated costs of cleanup, lost ticket revenue, maintenance tools, the instruments and other expenses. It also focused donations to its Network for Good “5,000 More Smiles at the LBC” campaign to provide additional free tickets to school matinées and family shows for those in need, a priority for outreach.

As before the firestorms, the center relies on sponsors, members and donations to help fund its programming and sustain its mission to enrich, educate and entertain the community; ticket sales cover only about half the center’s costs.

“People definitely are responding, even people who lost homes,” Seltzer said. “We’re eternally grateful.”

Since its founding in 1981 through the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation, the center has been known as a premier arts and events venue, while also producing nationally recognized education programs. Locals have visited the center for high school proms, weddings and other celebrations.

Though affected by the firestorms, there’s an optimistic current at the LBC.

Community members have been reaching out since shortly after the blaze. A 7-year-old boy who enjoys programs at the center was among the first to help. He sent a note expressing his concern along with $2 from his savings jar. That gesture provided much-needed encouragement to staff members who worked those first weeks from homes and hotels, some without power.

Shortly after the fire, the center welcomed several nationally known comedians for the sold-out “Stand Up Sonoma,” a fire relief benefit for Sonoma Pride and King Ridge Foundation, with a donation to the LBC Fire Recovery Fund. It was an opportunity to share laughs and directly help those in Sonoma County affected by the fires.

The efforts are part of the center’s ongoing campaign to engage the community and provide refuge, recovery and celebration through the arts. Despite challenges, uncertainties, damage and disruptions resulting from the firestorm, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts is still doing its part to serve the community.

“It’s truly a miracle we’re here,” Abrams said.

For more information or to make a donation, visit lutherburbankcenter.org.

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