By Tammy Gray
Just a few years ago the George Gardner Performing Arts Center, which has now become a fixture in Holbrook, was nothing more than a dream that, according to retired Holbrook School District business manager Garry McDowell, began in the late 1970s.
At that time the district was preparing for some significant changes due to a rapidly increasing student count. A comprehensive facilities plan had been created, which included an auditorium for performing arts, however, classroom needs outweighed the need for a new auditorium. Voters approved a bond, and construction on Park Elementary School as well as additions to the present day high school began.
With the construction of Park Elementary School, the Sheldon school was closed and the junior and senior high school campuses were swapped.
“In other words, up until the late 1970s the current Holbrook Junior High School campus housed grades nine through 12 and the current Holbrook High School campus housed grades six through eight,” McDowell noted.
The construction included Park Elementary School in its entirety, as well as the “A” building, library, science wing and Muñoz Gym at the present day high school, as well as the “A” wing and library at the present day junior high school. By the time the work was completed on classrooms and libraries, there was no money left for construction of a performing arts auditorium.
A few years later, the district went back to the voters and asked for another bond to construct the long-awaited auditorium, but did not receive a positive response.
“In the early 1980s the district went back to the voters and asked for money to construct the promised auditorium and make other improvements. This bond was defeated,” McDowell noted. “The voters were still upset that the auditorium was not built when the first bond was approved in the 1970s.”
Shortly after that time, the district faced a series of challenges that prevented the plan for an auditorium from moving forward. Student enrollment dropped following to completion of a major expansion project at Arizona Public Service Company’s (APS) Cholla Power Plant. School officials were focused on increasing enrollment by providing services to students residing on the reservation and political changes were taking place that both diversified the district’s leadership and provided new opportunities for funding.
Additional funding led to opportunities for all-day kindergarten, improved bus services to remote areas and, eventually, construction of Indian Wells Elementary School. McDowell noted that these events shaped the character of the district, but didn’t result in an auditorium.
“The confluence of these events… resulted in the Holbrook School District we see today, minus the auditorium,” he noted.
In the mid 1990s, following construction of new bleachers at the football field and a new gymnasium at Hulet Elementary School, the governing board began discussing construction of an auditorium. The idea gained real traction, however, after the passing of music teacher George Gardner, who had been the driving force behind the district’s music program and was much loved by his past and present students. In 1995, the district once again asked the voters to approve a bond measure to fund construction. This time, the voters approved a $4 million bond. Another $5 million in impact aid funding was diverted to pay for the facility, for a total of $9 million. McDowell noted that during construction, which took three years, other capital purchases were put on hold so that a state of the art facility, complete with orchestra pit and grand lobby, could be finished properly.
McDowell notes that during construction, he would often remark that the auditorium “is a beautiful lady and she knows it… no expense will be spared.”
He explained that he believes the auditorium is a blessing to Holbrook and in its own way has had a positive impact on the district and the community.
McDowell noted, “Overall bottom line, the Hand of Providence was clearly at work ensuring that Holbrook remains a thriving community, where “women and churches” are welcomed, and allowing Holbrook Unified School District to become recognized as a progressive school district providing wonderful opportunities to students and their families and respect for all cultures, beliefs and races.”