A sudden afternoon downpour didn’t dampen the enthusiasm at the Cary Arts Center‘s grand opening celebrations this past Saturday. The dedication ceremony was moved from the front plaza to an indoor theater, but otherwise the day’s activities continued undisturbed: a drum circle, art and ceramics demonstrations, theatrical, dance and musical performances. In a few short hours, the Cary Arts Center demonstrated the many reasons residents have been anxiously awaiting its arrival.

Located at the end of Academy Street, the center is in one of the largest and oldest buildings in downtown Cary. Built in 1938, it served as Cary High School until 1960 and then Cary Elementary for nearly 40 years. After the elementary school moved into a new building in 1998, the town of Cary bought the old building and has spent the last decade planning its transformation. Now that the 48,000-square-foot facility is open, it will offer everything from theatrical and musical performances to classes, camps, gallery exhibitions, open studios and meeting space for community groups.

“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for this,” says Lyman Collins, cultural arts manager for the town of Cary. He says that the key feature of the new arts center is how it brings all of the arts together into one space.

“It allows for serendipity. A person comes for one activity and stays for another. They go in for one thing and find something else.”

Cary Arts Center supervisor Robbie Stone agrees. “The synergy between the visual arts and performing arts is unusual, but artists respond well to each other.” Already there are opportunities for the various wings of the building to collaborate, as, for example, artists and designers assist theatrical performers with their sets.

The building itself is another important part of the excitement. “People are so excited about saving this building,” says Stone. “We’ve been excited, too, and after planning it for the last 10 years, now we can share it.”

As one walks through the building, it’s hard to forget the history of the space. Old lockers are still in the walls, and there are displays featuring photos and artifacts from the old schools. “We’re continuing the legacy of education throughout the building,” says Stone, “only now we’re focusing on arts education.”

The center’s main floor holds a 400-seat theater and several smaller exhibition and gallery spaces. The upper level has classrooms while the lower level features art studio space. The entire building was packed with curious residents and visitors during the events on Saturday. In the front lobby, where community organizations had set up information booths and arts center staff gave tours, Shawn Gordon of Apex was in awe at what he saw. “This is wonderful,” he says, taking in the chaotic but cheerful surroundings. “This is my first time here, but this is not what I expected. It’s much better.”

Cary has offered community arts programs for a long time, but now there’s a central location and a space to expand their offerings and resources. “We’ll be able to double the class space,” says Linda Simpson, an arts instructor who teaches classes on metals, jewelry making, clay and mixed media for both kids and adults. “We’re hiring a larger variety of instructors, and we may be able to take requests from the community and create new classes.”

Maria Boyer and Gen Palmer, two student musicians who played in the Arts Center’s first concert in July with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra, are both excited about the space. “I love it here,” says Boyer after finishing a midafternoon performance. “The center suits our needs exactly. The acoustics are great, and I love how I’ve seen the visual and performing arts combined.”

Palmer, who lives in Raleigh, admits that she’s jealous. “I wish this was in Raleigh.”

Overall, close to 30 community groups will have access to the arts center. There will be visiting performers, too, ranging from the Vienna Boys Choir to Broadway veterans Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell. More important, the center will act as a key anchor to the downtown Cary area.

“Its position at the end of Academy Street makes it very significant,” says downtown development manager Ed Gawf. “It’s part of the thread which connects all the buildings downtown, all the way up to town hall.”

In the next few years, Gawf hopes to see a lot more downtown development, including a planned movie theater on Chatham Street, more restaurants, new construction and places like ice cream and coffee shops. The economic downturn has not been a major problem so far. “This is the perfect time to position ourselves,” says Gawf. “The time to invest is before others have invested.”

Everyone seems to believe that the Arts Center is the first chapter of a new, artistically vibrant Cary. The idea of a transformed Cary has even been built into the architecture. Entering the Arts Center from the front plaza, visitors walk over a number of solar-powered lights set into the brick. When they walk out again at night, the plaza will be lit up by these lights.

“The arts are transformative,” says Collins, “and we wanted to create a space which symbolizes the transformative power of the arts. People are transformed as their surroundings are transformed. That’s the power of the arts, both for the individual and the community.”