Restore or replace? Clarkdale residents rally to save beloved bandstand
By Lacey Latch, Arizona Republic,2023-06-06
CLARKDALE — While longtime Clarkdale residents and newcomers might disagree over whether to call the century-old structure in the center of town a bandstand or a gazebo, almost everyone agrees with just how important the site is to the community.
The bandstand has been the focal point of Clarkdale since at least 1917. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of the contributing structures to the town's 460-acre historic district, one of the largest in the west.
The bandstand has been in continuous use since it was first built, hosting concerts, parties, holidays, weddings and other events throughout the years.
“The bandstand is probably the most iconic historic structure in the town of Clarkdale,” said Mike Lindner, president of the Clarkdale Historical Society and Museum.
Now, the integrity of the historic bandstand could be in jeopardy after the Town Council voted last month to dismantle the existing structure and build a replica in its place.
"The consensus seemed to be that since the majority of the structure was not original (even from as late as 2004), it was more prudent to reconstruct the structure with materials (such as cedar) that will last longer," Town Manager Susan Guthrie said in an email. "The Council felt that money was better spent to have a new structure that would be safer, provide ADA accessibility, and ultimately last longer for future generations."
She noted, "Every effort to reuse materials that are in good condition will be made."
Guthrie said construction on the project likely would start in July. Already, the bandstand stairs have been closed to the public, and workers took measurements of the site late last week.
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Bandstand repairs have been discussed for decades
Clarkdale leaders have been trying to figure out the best path forward for the historic site for years.
The town's most recent effort to repair the bandstand started in late 2021, when officials brought in a historical architect to assess the state of the structure. It was found "suitable for repair and restoration."
An engineering firm that consulted on the assessment determined the bandstand was safe to occupy, although there were several areas of concern.
But contrary to this report, Guthrie said, "there is more damage to the structure than originally noted."
Damage includes burned joist beams, bowed pillars and wood rot, in addition to the use of materials and construction methods that do not meet building code, she said.
As is the case with anyone dealing with contactors, the town's options were limited to the project proposals that they received.
The town initially received one public bid for more than $216,000, not including ADA solutions, lights or upgraded electric, which the council rejected.
Later, after two companies viewed the project, only one submitted a bid for reconstruction while using any salvageable materials. This bid, which includes electric and lighting, is $155,874 for the reconstruction and an additional $59,029 for an ADA solution.
"We would have loved to have received more bids to select from, but this is something we are facing on many projects: the inability to attract construction companies to bid for smaller projects," Guthrie said.
While the town applied for numerous grants to fund larger projects, the bandstand repairs were instead included in this year's town budget, Guthrie said.
Historic sites typically are eligible for a variety of grants to assist with preservation and maintenance.
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Residents rally around the 'heart of the town'
After the council's decision May 9, Clarkdale residents immediately began protesting. A petition urging the site be preserved has received more than 800 signatures in person and online in just a few weeks.
"This is a reflection of our history, not only of this town but of Arizona and the United States. And if you tear it down, you’re basically tearing down the heart of the town," said Cynthia Malla, who started the petition.
A 19-year Clarkdale resident and former member of the town's Parks and Recreation Commission, Malla is one of a handful of residents working to raise awareness about the town's proposed plans and to urge town leadership to reconsider reconstruction in favor of restoration.
“I live here because I love historic towns, and I value the historic structures that are here and the history that they represent,” Malla said while collecting signatures outside of the town post office last week.
In an effort to inform the community, town staff has added a page on the town website with information about the plan and the years-long process that it took council members to reach their final decision.
The page tries to answer a variety of questions about the plan, including the cost and reasoning behind it as well as photographs of the current state of the structure.
It also outlines the various opportunities for public participation, including four Town Council meetings and six meetings of the Historic Preservation Commission since October 2021 in which members of the public had opportunities to comment.
But still some residents believe they weren't listened to throughout the process or now, especially after the cancellation of the May 23 Town Council meeting, the first since councilmembers voted on the reconstruction weeks earlier.
“That doesn’t feel like a democracy to me,” said Amanda Arnold, a Clarkdale resident since 2004. “I think we should be listened to.”
Arnold, like countless other residents in town, has personal memories tied directly to the physical bandstand in the park today.
Jason Benatz, who like many others was married in the bandstand, can see the structure from his front yard. His family has been in Clarkdale for as long as the bandstand has stood in the center of the town park, he said.
At one point, his family assumed responsibility for the maintenance and decoration of the structure when the town couldn't afford it, Benatz said, because "it meant something to them."
“It meant something to how the town felt and how charming it is," he said.
State, local preservation advocates encourage council to reconsider
In addition to residents, the town also has received considerable pushback from state and local history organizations.
Throughout the process, experts from the Clarkdale Historical Society and Museum have tried to offer their expertise to the council but have largely been dismissed, Lindner said.
“We’ve got councilmembers and town staff acting as if they’re engineers and historians and historic experts rather than relying on those who are,” he said.
Late last month, the Arizona Preservation Foundation, the state's premiere preservation advocacy group, sent a letter to the Town Council urging members to change their minds about the planned demolition and instead focus on restoration.
"The Clarkdale Bandstand has stood the test of time, representing the town's rich history and providing a unique sense of place. Replicating the structure would diminish its historical value and erode the authenticity that makes it a beloved landmark," wrote Jim McPherson, president of the group's Board of Directors.
Further, the project could have larger implications for the future of the town's historic district.
The bandstand's pending reconstruction could potentially jeopardize its standing as a qualifying structure on the National Register of Historic Places, said Kathryn Leonard, Arizona's historic preservation officer.
After the project is complete, Leonard said, an assessment likely will need to be done to see if the structure has kept enough of its original integrity to meet the list's requirements.
Lindner points to the preservation effort of a bandstand in in Santa Barbara, California, that is even older than Clarkdale's as evidence enough that restoration is entirely possible if leaders prioritize it.
“We hope that they will do the right thing because historic preservation is part of the core values of Clarkdale,” he said.
Reach the reporter at LLatch@gannett.com.
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