When Don Wildsmith became Winder’s first cultural arts director in 2007 to manage its new theatre, he didn’t really know if either he, or the theatre, would still be moving forward a few years later.
Seven years later, Wildsmith and the center have done more than just survive an economic downturn. They’ve thrived.
The director, a former carpenter and retired Master Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, can point out the physical differences in the building, once a textile facility: A theatre where sewing machines used to be, a treasure trove of props that even Athens theatre companies borrow in an area gutted and rebuilt.
It’s more than just the physical successes though. Wildsmith can point to how popular the center has become, from the shows put on by the Winder-Barrow Community Theatre to the banquet space used for family reunions and business events.
“A lot of things have changed,” he said.
In other words, Barrow has been changed due to the presence of the center. Wildsmith can point to the successful drama program at Apalachee High, which has been spurred on and now has its own theatre in part to the work of teacher Susan Pierce and in part to all that students have learned at the Cultural Arts Center, helping to work on or perform in plays over the years.
“I do this because I think it’s very important to the city of Winder,” Wildsmith said, acknowledging it was the work of many people, not just him, that contributed to the success. “I want to see this place here in another seven years.”
He doesn’t just want to see the center maintaining what has been done either, but expanding on it. He said he’d like to open up more of the first floor to have a children’s choir and possibly bring in professional theater troupes from other cities more often.
“My plan is to expand the opportunity (for residents) of things they can see and do,” he said.
He stays busy, but Wildsmith still didn’t mind taking some time out of his schedule (he’s the sole staff member of the Cultural Arts Center excluding the TV station) to reflect back on how it all started.
The new Cultural Arts Center opened April 7, 2007, filling a void in the city at the time. It had been many years, Wildsmith said, since a theatre, like the old Critic’s Choice Theatre, had last been in town.
Wildsmith gives much of the credit for the center to former Mayor Buddy Outz and the council members at that time, who paid to gut and remodel the old building. The soon-to-be director also was involved in the process of remodeling the second story. He remembered the pigeons, squirrels and large rats he helped remove.
It was a big step for the city.
“This is a leap of faith for a city this size to do this,” he said. “The city has always helped.”
The city’s investment paid off. During the years, Wildsmith and his many supporters created more usable space on the first floor as well turned the space into something many likely couldn’t have expected.
“This is a fully functioning theatre,” he said.
It’s not just for plays the WBCT puts on either. The center hosts films, concerts, nonprofit foundation events and, Wildsmith’s favorite, the Fine Arts Festival. The festival puts on display performances and artwork from the school system’s students.
Yet, despite all the center now does, the fact that it exists at all is still a surprise to some people, Wildsmith said. Changing people’s minds about the center when they finally come to a show is one of his favorite experiences.
“I enjoy the fact that everybody is surprised,” he said. “I relish the opportunity to surprise more people.”