Top 2021 Stories - No. 8: Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts, CTC Center open

The Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts in Brainerd and the CTC Center in Pillager opened May 26, 2021, and Oct. 12, 2021, respectively as a result of referendums.

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Brainerd Public Schools Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

It’s showtime!

Excited speakers, grand music and a euphoric atmosphere celebrated the May 26 grand opening of the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts in Brainerd.

And about 14 miles west, the CTC Center in Pillager celebrated its grand opening with a special invite-only event Oct. 12 and the first paid public events the following weekend.

Both performing arts venues opened in 2021 for the first time and both faced challenges in their construction funding before opening day.


Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts
Brainerd High School's new performing arts center was named by the school board the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts. "Gichi-ziibi" is an Ojibwe term meaning "big river" or "Mississippi River." Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

The Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts is a 1,200-seat auditorium and performing arts center attached to Brainerd High School that resulted from the district’s 2018 bonding referendum.

And almost two-and-a-half years after a successful referendum vote, the new CTC Center at Pillager Public Schools, an auditorium slated to seat just under 400 people, opened in October.

An auditorium of a grander scale was in the original building plans when Brainerd High School was constructed in the 1960s but funds were lacking. Later unsuccessful referendums pushed an auditorium further out of reach.



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Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts, attached to Brainerd High School.
Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Gichi-Ziibi Center for the Arts grand opening Gallery
Until this year, the only stage space the Pillager School District had was a small decades-old stage in the elementary cafeteria, which was not big enough for an entire musical cast, and meant tables and chairs had to be moved every time an event took place.

Construction of both new auditoriums in Brainerd and in Pillager, according to their ardent supporters, was long overdue.

The new CTC Center at Pillager Public Schools includes an auditorium with just under 400 seats and is the result of the district's 2019 referendum. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

For Brainerd High School students, the Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts means convenience, enhanced acoustics and a larger stage to showcase their artistic accomplishments.

For the Pillager community, the new CTC Center will not only be a permanent space for fine arts activities, but it will also have dressing rooms and areas for set storage and costumes.


The lobby of the new CTC Center at Pillager Public Schools will double as an online learning lab for students taking online classes. Theresa Bourke / Brainerd Dispatch

The Gichi-ziibi Center for the Arts means economic vitality and a strong future for Brainerd lakes area businesses as those from all over the region flock to the new arts center, according to Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kilian.

For the local American Indian community, the new arts center and its name — translating to “big river” or “Mississippi River” in Ojibwe — means another step toward acknowledging the area’s Indigenous lands, history and people.

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The referendum that made the CTC Center a reality in Pillager put $8.5 million into building maintenance, classrooms and vocational space, among other things.

Much of the Pillager referendum’s success was attributed to the focus on vocational programs, after voters who rejected a 2017 vote said they would support future plans that included money for vocational classes like woods, metals and culinary arts.

School board meetings were envisioned to take place in the Pillager auditorium upon its completion as well, along with other events for CTC, which purchased the naming rights for the facility. The lobby was intended as an online learning lab for students with online classes.


FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

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I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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