Community celebrates Paradise Center opening

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  • Your first impression when entering the Paradise Center in Paradise is a wall filled with artwork and photographs. The theme works well as the facility serves as a visitor center as well as a community center. (Photos by Joe Sova/Clark Fork Valley Press)

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    Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee member John Thorson holds a frame depicting the small town miniatures made by Harvey Gould now on display at the Paradise Center. (Joe Sova/Clark Fork Valley Press)

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    The Paradise Center was the site of the fifth annual Artists in Paradise July 19-21. Above, Cheri Seli of Heartwood Arts Photography in Plains shows her work to Bonnie Coppock, who was visiting from Omak, Wash. She was in town for the French family reunion.

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  • Your first impression when entering the Paradise Center in Paradise is a wall filled with artwork and photographs. The theme works well as the facility serves as a visitor center as well as a community center. (Photos by Joe Sova/Clark Fork Valley Press)

  • 1

    Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee member John Thorson holds a frame depicting the small town miniatures made by Harvey Gould now on display at the Paradise Center. (Joe Sova/Clark Fork Valley Press)

  • 2

    The Paradise Center was the site of the fifth annual Artists in Paradise July 19-21. Above, Cheri Seli of Heartwood Arts Photography in Plains shows her work to Bonnie Coppock, who was visiting from Omak, Wash. She was in town for the French family reunion.

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{Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles about the Paradise Center in Paradise, a depiction of some local history, and the future of the arts in the community.}

History was in the making with the opening of the Paradise Center, on the hill on the east edge of Paradise, on Saturday, July 21. It was the culimination of the three-day fifth annual Artists in Paradie exhibit in what is now called the auditorium adjacent to the former Paradise Elementary School. The auditorium was formerly the school’s gymnasium, with lots of history there as well.

Artists in Paradise was again sponsored by the hard-working Sanders County Arts Council. Taking part in the exhibit were Ellen Childress, hand-thrown functional stoneware; Tom Collins, hand-carved wood sculpture; Andrea Fernandez, acrylic paintings; Rick Harter, acrylic and watercolor paintings, and pen and ink drawings; Orval Kuester, nature photography; Ed Moreth, photography; Ilene Paulsen, acrylic and watercolor paintings; Cheri Seli, nature photography; Liz Smith, rock and copper creations; Karen Thorson, oil and watercolor paintings, and fused glass; Diane Zimmerman, alcohol ink, acrylics and mixed media; and Special Showing, a kaleidoscope by Summer Arts Camp students.

It is important to note the support to the project given by the Sanders County Arts Council.

On the culiminating day, the Paradise Elementary Preservation Committee hosted the opening of the Paradise Center, in the works since the committee assumed administrative responsibility for the buildings and ground in 2016. The school ceased operation in 2013, and there was a mandatory three-year waiting period before school trustees could relinquist responsibility for the property. Committee members gave guided tours of what is now the Paradise Center, 108-year-old brick building housing students until about five years ago. Progress in repurposing the former school, including the gymnasium, was explained to interested visitors during the open house.

IN 2016, the committee began preservation, renovation and repurposing the site through grants; individual, business and organizational contributions; and volunteer work. According to the Paradise Center Progress Report 2018, “The former school is becoming a community, visitor and arts center, and is already serving Sanders County and Northwest Montana.

General accomplishments in just a two-year span include installing HVAC in the multipurpose room; creating a master plan for the site; installing additional outdoor lighting; patching and painting numerous rooms; acquiring 200 chairs and 20 tables; installing a “Donor Tree” of funders; removing obsolete wiring; renovating restrooms in the auditorium; ungrading the Paradise Center website and Facebook page; developing branding with a center logo; obtaining signage; and improving the parking area. Most recently, an ADA-complaint concrete ramp to the Paradise Center entry was installed.

In the near future, the committee is focused on upgrading heating in the main building, and expanding the kitchen.

SERVING AS a community center, the committee has developed a facility rental program, which allows for wedding receptions, family reunions, birthday parties, community classes and gatherings, and musical and drama presentations in the auditorium and former school building.

Down the road, there are expected to be plans to create an outdoor amphitheater, obtain additional picnic tables, install external doors to restrooms, providing easy access to all floors in the Paradise Center, and to work with the local VFW and American Legion on a memorial.

The former school is being nicely transformed into a visitor center, depicicting history of the Paradise area of Montana and surrounding communities. Already accomplished is a 3D northwest Montana exhibit, with components including Towns in Northwest Montana, Glacial Lake Missoula, Tourist Activities and Attractions, State Parks, Road to the Buffalo, The Big Burn (fires of 1910), Rentable Fire Lookouts, Historic Classroom, and Old Western Town. The committee has collaborated to create “history stories” for the displays.

The Arts Center on the upper floor of the Paradise Center is taking shape with such features as a studio filled with 12 handcrafted easels for artists’ use, two pianos, a “green room” for performers, a system for performance lighting and building audience risers. Stage risers in the auditorium are also featured.

COMMITTEE MEMBER John Thorsen was one of the tour guides during the July 21 open house. He explained how the land for the Paradise School was donated by the Northern Pacific Railroad, setting the stage for the construction of the building and completion in 1910.

“Paradise was a railroad town,” Thorson explained. “It was created for the railroad. Crews stopped and spent the night.”

The committee was formed and rented space from the school trustees after the school closed in 2013. Thorson said $50,000 was raised from 2014 to 2016, and Sanders County took title to the property and is leasing it to the committee.

“The county has been very supportive,” he said. “They graded and expanded the parking lot. Everything else is done by using our nonprofit group (the committee). We raised money for operation and maintenance of exhibits and for capital improvements.”

A JERRY METCALF Foundation grant will pave the way for a ceramics room in the basement of the Paradise Center, to feature kilns and potting wheels that will be part of the arts program. There will art classes for children in the near future, and a theater is being added to accommodate performances.

Thorson pointed out that the school trophy room in the basement had been relocated, showing off the maroon and gold of the Paradise Bombers. Thorson’s tour also took visitors through the basement room filled with wooden models by Harvey Gould and his wife depicting a western town at the turn into the 20th century. Gould was an engineer with the Montana Highway Department. “It was kind of a labor of love for him,” Thorson said of Gould. The display was completed in 2017 and orginally located at the Dixon Senior Center before being moved to the schoolhouse.

Thorson said a grant for a feasibility study by a community design team at the School of Architecture at Montana State University was received by the committee. The design team was in Paradise in 2016 and developed concepts for the Paradise Center in the long term. It features construction of a structure to connect the classroom building to the auditorium.

So plans go on for development of the Paradise Center, thanks largely to the Paradise Elementary School Preservation Committee with support from the Sanders County Arts Council.

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