If plans go as scheduled, The Dorothy K. Merrill Center for the Arts will open in October of 2011 attached to the Loft Theater at East Ridge High School.

The announcement of a $2 million to $2.3 million donation to Arts Connection from Merrill's estate will make the facility, which includes a "black box" theater, arts gallery and storage areas, a reality.

The District 833 School Board discussed the donation and naming of the theater at the Feb. 18 workshop meeting with Michelle Witte, Arts Connection vice president and fundraiser for the new 10,000 square-foot facility.

Merrrill, who was not an arts patron but was a strong supporter of the community she lived in for 40 years, died last November at 93, according to Witte.

When her estate is finally settled in November of this year, the money will come to the connection and be paired with $300,000 already raised by Arts Connection from donations and seat naming. Donors pledge $1,500 over three years to get their names placed on theater seats. There will also be a donor board in the theater space, Witte said.

Witte expects another $300,000 to $500,000 will be raised. Now that the theater is becoming a reality, potential donors will be more willing to give money, she said.

The additional money will be used for equipment and a small endowment to operate the theater.

The theater will also be the permanent home of the Woodbury Community Theatre. The new theater, which has a second-floor loft space for props and costumes, will also house 35 years of scripts, sets and costumes.

A community theater to serve all south Washington County residents has been discussed for more than 10 years, but construction of East Ridge was an opportunity for Arts Connection and the school district to team up in 2005 to build it next to the new high school.

When construction began, however, the connection didn't have the money for the facility to be included.

"It's been a long journey," Witte told board members.

The district and Arts Connection members will be meeting to draw up a legal agreement to build and operate the theater, according to Superintendent Mark Porter.

"It's a unique facility that will be attached to a district building," he said. "It will be mutually used by the school and the community."

The primary use for the theater will be for rehearsals, Witte said.

But is can also be used for "caberet" and theater-in-the-round, according to Amanda Hestwood, East Ridge theater director.

The performance area mirrors The Loft Theater so shows can be blocked and practiced without tying up the main stage.

When the high school is in full rehearsal for a musical, student actors use the main stage for eight to nine weeks. With the additional stage, the show will need less time on the main stage.

"It will free up a big chunk of time for other concerts or performances," she said. "I've always said education is first and the community second, but we can work together."

There is no final estimate of the amount of money needed to build and equip the facility, Hestwood said, and it will depend what materials, such as flooring, are selected.

Board Member Ron Kath said he supports the project but is concerned the district doesn't have a facility-naming policy.

"What if a company donated $10 million for a facility," he said. "Would we put their name on it?"