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A Jewel in the Desert and a Capital Campaign

How a present community comes together as a testament to its heritage

Southern Utah Performing Arts Foundation and Utah Tech to create a home for community arts

What makes for a vibrant performing arts scene? Of course, the talent and the audience are only part of the equation. To create that certain magic where artists and audiences can inspire and connect requires a venue, a home—one that is engaging, acoustically sound and artistically accommodating to its audience.

A Community Need

The Southwest Symphony, established in 1980 by Dr. Norman Fawson, Irene Everett and Dr. Ronald Garner, held its first production of “Messiah” in the venerable Tabernacle on Main Street in St. George, which it quickly outgrew.

The Cox Performing Arts Center was completed in 1986, funded in large part by the late Dr. Mervyn K. Cox, and Sue Cox. It served as a venue for the Southwest Symphony, and many cultural arts groups, including the Southern Utah Heritage Choir, founded more than 30 years ago. With the center’s deteriorating physical facilities, outdated lighting and the sound system in disrepair, something had to be done.

A Collaborative Partnership Emerges

The Southern Utah Performing Arts Foundation together with Utah Tech (which currently owns the facility), recently announced a bold plan to renovate the Cox at about half the cost of building a new performing arts center.

Lowry Snow, local attorney and former legislator and chair of the foundation, was a key player in securing $28 million in funding through the Utah State Legislature as a start to the $40 million project. An additional $12 million is needed to bridge the funding gap.

Says Lowry, “According to a 2019 City of St. George survey, residents voted having a performing arts center as a ‘top 3 priority,’ and the economic benefits are tremendous.” He explains this move benefits the city, county and state economies by generating business and tax revenue from lodging, meals and other tourism activities.

Alyce Stephens Gardner, Southwest Symphony chair and foundation board member, adds, “This action will provide a ‘home’ for anchor community arts groups—the Southwest Symphony and the Southern Utah Heritage Choir—with rehearsal and performance space. In addition, it will offer an enhanced venue for Utah Tech University students, the university’s orchestra, symphonic band and UT Live!—the Celebrity Concert Series and for additional community groups for rehearsal.”  Alyce continues to be an optimistic driving force behind the capital campaign.

Richard “Biff” Williams, Utah Tech University president, describes “Community as University” as one of its five strategic planning goals, which captures the university’s desire to develop robust ties with the community. He says, “A major part of our efforts relate to the arts. The arts bring people together in something bigger than just ourselves.”

The Southwest Symphony has been awarded “Best of State” for five consecutive years and has grown exponentially. Led by Maestro Lucas Darger, 90 professional musicians rehearse and perform weekly. Symphony members have been trained at the finest music schools, including Juilliard, and have played with major symphony orchestras.

The Southern Utah Heritage Choir, under president, Geri Rhodes, seeks every opportunity to present its inspiring art form to audiences locally, nationally and internationally. Under the direction of Dr. Ken Peterson, the choir is recognized for its rich tone and excellent concerts.

A Desert Jewel

Truly, the new performing arts center is poised to become the new Jewel of the Desert. Paul Morris, vice president of administrative affairs at Utah Tech, states, “A diamond in the rough, the Cox Auditorium at Utah Tech University will be transformed into a performance hall worthy of renowned artists.”

The completed renovation—a modern, 1,250-seat proscenium theater with updated, state-of-the-art acoustics, lighting and technical systems—is certain to be an entertainment treasure, building on the strong heritage of the area’s past when early settlers of the 1860s, many destitute, found joy in their distinctive, inimitable sounds of music. 

To be part of the capital campaign, contact the SUPA Foundation at PO Box 911505, St. George, UT 84791 or contact ALYCE@SWSUTAH.ORG.

  • Southern Utah Performing Arts Foundation board and Utah Tech officials