- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Randy Clarahan was standing with Chuck Swanson last week outside the new Hancher Auditorium, looking up at the gleaming fine arts venue that is in its final months of construction on the University of Iowa’s arts campus.

“It’s officially 2016, Chuck,” said Clarahan, the Mortenson Construction executive whose company has been leading the work on the new $176 million Hancher since breaking ground three years ago.

“There’s no turning back,” laughed Swanson, Hancher Auditorium’s executive director.

The Iowa City Press-Citizen (https://icp-c.com/1KsMHx9 ) reports that this is the year project leaders - along with the greater university, Iowa City and state cultural communities - have been waiting for since the old Hancher was declared unusable following the flood of 2008.

Hancher is poised for a grand return.

“I can’t believe how fast it’s gone,” Swanson said. “There were certainly challenges, but eight years - I talked to someone today, and that’s a second-grader, 8 years old. That’s a long time.”

Construction is scheduled to wrap up this spring, with workers handing the keys to Hancher staff on June 1. Soft opening events are being planned for the summer - a special performance for construction workers is likely, for example - before the curtain rises on the inaugural season in the fall semester.

Swanson and Englert Theatre executive director Andre Perry toured the venue with the Press-Citizen last week, when the two arts leaders were named the Press-Citizen’s Persons of the Year. The site visit presented an opportunity to get a first-hand look of the massive construction job as it heads into the homestretch.

Bryan Watson, the Hancher project manager for Mortenson, said exterior work on the building is about 95 percent complete. The 14,000 brushed steel panels are nearly all in place, and the landscaping work has been done. Inside the 192,000-square-foot complex, meanwhile, Watson said construction is 85 percent finished.

“Everything behind the scenes is pretty close to complete, so now it’s just the flooring, the ceilings, the wall finishes - those sorts of things,” Watson said.

Hancher is expected to announce its 2016-17 season in April - its first slate under one roof since having to take its shows on the road following the flood. Swanson teases that there will “be some surprises in that opening season,” though he’s tight-lipped about any specifics.

While Hancher’s staff has had to cobble together eight seasons in dozens of venues since the flood, its biggest task may lay ahead in opening a new facility for the first time since 1972.

“We’ll do the best planning we can, but we’re going to be learning as we go, too,” Swanson said. “Part of that will happen during the soft opening, but there will be a lot of decisions made before the soft opening. So we’ll be doing a lot of testing, and we want to hear back from people. We want their reactions, and we want to know what people like and what they don’t think is working.”

Watson, who came to Iowa from Louisiana to head up the Hancher job, said he looks forward to one day sitting down in the 1,800-seat theater to see a show.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Watson said. “None of us will ever do another building like this.”

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Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, https://www.press-citizen.com/

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