Photo by Tori Dickson

To better understand how long some Bellevue boosters have wanted a performing arts center downtown, consider this: When the idea first crystallized, La Cage aux Folles was taking Broadway and the Tony Awards by storm.

It was 1984, and a public-private partnership, co-led by downtown Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman, formed to examine the feasibility of such a center, known among locals as Performing Arts Center Eastside, or PACE.

In 2002, Bellevue City Council endorsed PACE; Freeman donated a parcel of land then valued at $8 million; and, eight years later, the Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Foundation pledged $25 million for naming rights to what became known as the Tateuchi Center — a $200 million, 2,000-seat venue near the Hyatt Regency Bellevue. 

Additional pledges poured in from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, City of Bellevue, Kemper Development Company, Microsoft, Nintendo of America founder Minoru Arakawa and his family, and many others.

Fundraising continues today while ground has yet to be broken on the project, which is no longer the Tateuchi Center but once again again is known as PACE.

The task of leading the project now falls to Ray Cullom. 

Last year, Cullom moved with his family from the East Coast to the Eastside to become PACE’s CEO, a position Cullom, 53, has held since August 2018.

Does Cullom ever run into people who ask him whether a performing arts center in downtown Bellevue will ever be built?

“Almost every day,” he replied.

And what does Cullom tell them?

“I hear you, but I’m glad it wasn’t built yet,” he continued. “It would be obsolete, the wrong building. I understand everybody’s impatient for this, but give us the time that we need, and we’re going to do something really special.”

Q: In general, does it take this long to complete a project like this? 

A: Typically, you’re replacing something that already exists. Or you’re building a home for a symphony, a ballet, or an opera company. They all have their established audiences and donor bases, you build it, and it’s done. 

This is an unusual circumstance because Bellevue has constantly changed. The organization would hit on an idea for what it was going to do, and it would work to realize it. By the time it was ready to go, Bellevue had passed it by. The building wasn’t right for Bellevue anymore. We want to jump ahead of that. 

Also, the mission has broadened beyond one building. If you look at all the development coming to downtown Bellevue, unless you consciously work to include cultural spaces into these new buildings, you’re going to end up with a city that opens at 10 in the morning and closes at 6 at night. Amenities like arts and culture make cities livable, lively places early in the morning and late at night, and make people want to live there.

Q: Are you in dialogue with some of these downtown Bellevue developers? 

A: We’re talking to all the developers about the inclusion of cultural space — meaning dance theaters, recital halls, black box theaters, rehearsal studios, and art galleries — into the fabric of these buildings, and PACE would then oversee their development, management, and operation. 

Typically, an arts infrastructure evolves as a city evolves. In Seattle, 5th Avenue Theatre was built in 1925, and Paramount Theatre was built in 1928. Because we know exactly what the development in downtown Bellevue is going to be over the next 10 years, Bellevue has this incredible opportunity to plan and execute an integrated cultural infrastructure. If you think of Bellevue as a huge mixed-use development, one of the uses is arts and culture. Blocks that have a performance space on them are much more likely to have cafés, outdoor restaurants, and life than blocks without them. 

Q: Since you’ve arrived, there’s been a new focus on tech and innovation for this project. What does that look like? 

A: We’re building a holder for tech that can plug and play the current generation of immersive or enhancing technology — whatever it is — and incorporate that into a live performance experience. The more space you can leave for pulling out the last generation of tech and putting in the new generation of tech is the way to go. 

In 20 years, this (pointing to his smartphone) probably will be gone. It could be something else. Who knows?

We don’t want the building to be committed to any particular tech of the time when it opens. We just want it to be a beautifully designed cultural hub that’s comfortable to be in and hang out in, and that has the ability to be scalable and upgradeable as the tech changes.

Q: This project once was known as the Tateuchi Center. Now, it’s known as PACE. Are the Tateuchis still involved? 

A: Definitely. Looking at the whole project, we also looked at funding for the project. Money had been pledged toward the building. With the building being different now — with a bigger and more expanded vision for what we’re going to do — we needed to go back and take a look at the pledges that had been made toward building the old iteration of the idea. 

What we needed to do was create some space for a very large donor to come in and make a transformational gift that would allow us to do what we’re trying to do. We entered into a dialogue with the Tateuchi family. They understood the project has grown and changed beyond the vision it was when they got involved. The funding equation for how we’re going to realize it also had to grow and change. 

They’re still very much involved with the project, very supportive of the project. They very graciously agreed to move their gift to program funding down the road. What that does for us is creates the potential to find that major, transformational, leading gift. Typically, a leading gift is about 35 percent of the total. In a $200 million project, that’s $70 million to $75 million. That’s our quest right now for the next 12 to 18 months.

Q: What is the timeline for construction to begin, and for the building to open? 

A: We’ve formed a vision and design team, and I’ve told that team we’re going to take as much time as we need to design this building — the lobby experience, stage experience, seating experience, and all different facets — and do it justice. Ideally, it will be about two years from now to break ground, and then anywhere from 18 months to two years to construct the building.

Q: What’s in front of you and the project within the next six months? 

A: Getting the word out and making the case to major potential donors in town that if you think you know what it is that we are doing because you heard about it 10 years ago, it’s a completely different animal at this point. We’re talking about much more than just a single building on a single corner. We’re talking about an arts infrastructure in Bellevue.