In West Chester armory reborn as arts center, a transformation to toast on New Year's Eve

When 500 people raise a glass to 2017 in a refurbished century-old armory next weekend, they also will be celebrating an occasion more than six years in the making: the opening of Chester County's newest performing arts center.

The New Year's Eve gala is the inaugural event at the Knauer Performing Arts Center on North High Street in West Chester. A group of borough residents transformed the National Guard armory into a cultural nexus for the community and a home for about four dozen of the county's performing arts organizations that had been without permanent spaces.

With the blossoming of West Chester over the last few decades, the county seat has gained voguish restaurants and retail. But it lost a performance space in the 1980s when a theater built in the 1920s was torn down.

"People, whether they knew it or not, were waiting for a place," said Angela Scully, executive director of Uptown! Entertainment Alliance, the nonprofit formed to shepherd the project.

She called the center's opening "a testament to some really hard work and vision."

"When you think that four people sat around having a cocktail and had this idea," she said, "and it's happening."

In May, renovations began on the 10,900-square-foot armory, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Benjamin Franklin formed the National Guard unit it housed in 1747.

On the calendar for January is a youth acting workshop, as well as a jazz cocktail hour and an interactive improvisation comedy show. And tickets went on sale Sunday for what will be the center's first theater production in March and April: Monty Python's Spamalot, a musical comedy based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The arts center has about 100 members so far.

"I'm amazed myself it's all kind of come together," said Tom McEvoy, co-founder and president of Uptown! Entertainment Alliance.

The state legislature authorized the group to transform the armory into a theater in 2013 after the troops moved to another facility. Uptown! Entertainment Alliance bought the building for about $800,000, McEvoy said. About $4 million has been raised in grants and donations, and $800,000 more is being sought for landscaping and other finishing touches.

The center includes a main-stage theater, where 327 seats will be installed next month; two smaller performance spaces, and two classrooms. All are available for rental.

It has eight resident companies of theater, music and dance. West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts will teach students at the center, instead of its usual place for classes, the Chester County Historical Society.

Nickerson-Rossi Dance, a contemporary and modern dance company, was looking to expand from its home in California to the East Coast and found a space in the West Chester center.

The Resident Theatre Company just finished casting in Philadelphia and New York for its Spamalot production.

"To me, it's such an incredible opportunity," said Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell, the company's founding artistic director, who worked in theater in New York City for more than 20 years before moving to West Chester in 2013.

Formed 11/2 years ago, Resident has sold out more than 20 performances in various venues around the county.

"We're just waiting for the real theater to be finished," Mitchell said.

mbond@philly.com

610-313-8207 @MichaelleBond