Ontario’s Four Rivers center weathers string of cancellations amid COVID shutdown

Tanya Navarrete, marketing director at Four Rivers Cultural Center, hands out masks and care kits at the center. The April 18 event was a collaboration of the center, Matsy’s Restaurant, Ontario Community Church and the volunteer group Mask Ontario Save Our City. (Yadira Lopez/Malheur Enterprise)

ONTARIO – As COVID-19 continues to decimate the local events calendar, Four Rivers Cultural Center has been particularly hit.

The center recently called off the popular Live After 5 concert series in the summer. More than 25 events have been canceled or postponed at the cultural center since it closed its doors two months ago.

“We haven’t made any money since March 16 when we closed,” said Matt Stringer, center executive director.

The decision to cancel Live After 5 came as the cultural center considered social distancing guidelines, safety and cost, said Tanya Navarrete, marketing and development director at the center.

The free event, going on its eighth year, was slated from June 10 to Aug. 19 and featured six concerts at the center’s Hikaru Mizu Japanese garden. Typically, attendance at the event exceeds 300 people.

“We aren’t yet to a time frame where we understand how people are going to respond to crowds,” Stringer said.

Other events that disappeared from the center’s calendar due to COVID-19 are Dancing with the Four Rivers Star – a competition pairing locals with professional ballroom dancers – and Bordertown Comic Con, a two-day convention that was to take place in March.

Performances inside the Meyer McLean Performing Arts Theater are particularly affected by the restrictions, Stringer added. Maintaining social distancing inside the theater would entail seating patrons several seats and rows apart.

A reopening date for the public to the museum, Japanese garden and gallery remains uncertain. Stringer pointed to other venues such as the Portland Opera, which earlier this month decided to postpone its upcoming season, effectively canceling shows that were scheduled through 2021.

The state has yet to give directives aimed at venues such as the cultural center. However, meeting rooms at the center will reopen for renting starting June 1. Only one meeting for no more than 25 people can be rented at a time.

“The largest source of revenue at the cultural center comes from those individuals, families, businesses and organizations who utilize the space with rentals,” Navarrete wrote in an email.

The center has lost more than $120,000 since the ban on gatherings was placed, she added.

None of its eight employees have been furloughed or laid off, Stringer confirmed.

He’s spent the past few weeks applying to more than $400,000 in grants from organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Oregon Community Foundation.

The Japanese American Citizens League donated $5,000 to the center and donations have come in from other community members.

Supporting the center through donations or by booking the space once it reopens for meetings is the best way for the community to help, Stringer said.

“I’m really proud of what we do here,” he said. “I think it makes the community unique and we accomplish so much for children. We’re so focused on equity and diversity.”

Most of the cultural center’s programming is either free or low cost, Navarrete said. While programming has taken an unexpected turn, the center continues to brainstorm ways to remain a resource for the community, she added.

Last month it partnered with Matsy’s restaurant, Mask Ontario Save Our City and Ontario Community Church to hand out more than 500 masks and care kits at a drive-thru event in front of the cultural center.

“When we start back up we’ll just take a huge deep breath and try to make it everything it was and more,” Stringer said. “We’re growing every year, sometimes by leaps and bounds.”

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