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Pushing for a Renaissance of the Arts

Proponents continue push for town to turn the Gura Building into a cultural arts center, but some are worried that it would create issues downtown rather than solutions.

Picture a downtown spot where residents can take art classes, display their work of just enjoy a place to take in a bit of culture.

It’s a dream that Southington resident Mary DeCroce has had for years and with the town soon moving several departments out of the Gura Building and into the North Center School, she said the perfect location for a new cultural arts center is finally available.

“The main thing I have recognized, in Southington there is a lack of exhibit and teaching space. We have a great community that ranks near the top of the state in education and quality of life – except when it comes to arts and culture,” DeCroce said. “When it comes to that aspect, Southington has the lowest grades in Connecticut of any town our size.”

The concept of turning the Gura Building into a cultural arts center is one that has stirred passionate responses from those throughout the community and those responses have been mixed to say the least.

The at 93 Main Street has long been a familiar sight for those traveling downtown Southington. Some see it as a landmark – it is considered a contributing factor to the Southington Town Green’s status as a historical property, but is not a historical property itself – while others describe the 87-year-old building as “an eyesore.”

The town has essentially three options when it comes to the building, according to Town Council member and Chairwoman Dawn Miceli.

The town can either demolish the building and pave over or plant grass on the empty lot, sell the property to an interested developer or lease it. The town would still have to determine whether to lease it to the arts council or another organization and would be required by state statutes to go to bid on any project.

The proposed plan set forth by members of Southington Community Cultural Arts requests that the town lease the building to SCCA for $1. The organization would then be responsible for renovating it and maintaining the property as an arts center.

DeCroce and Peter Veronneau, a long-time resident who helped restore the old Milldale Schoolhouse that now serves as home to , said renovating the property would take approximately $1.2 million including asbestos removal. Annual costs are estimated at $117,000.

“A renovation would include exterior improvements, as well as reconfiguring the interior to house new classroom and studio spaces, a performance area, a small office, retail space for the sale of arts supplies and a small kitchen and catering area,” Veronneau said during a presentation to the committee last week.

Not everyone is onboard with the idea, however.

The committee has received numerous comments and letters from residents opposing the plan, each with their own reasons for their skepticism.

Local residents John Taillie, Bonnie Sica and Art Cyr are among those who have expressed concerns about whether additional costs would be unveiled as the building is renovated. Cyr and Taillie each said the exact amount of structural damage could not be determined until walls are torn down and worry that renovations could be unfinished due to a lack of funding. If it is finished, they questioned where people would be able to park.

Taillie, one of nearly half a dozen to write letters opposing the plan, also expressed concerns that the building blocks the view of .

“We are fortunate to have a beautiful town hall, but it is shadowed by this eyesore,” he said. “It’s just a shame. That building is in disrepair and should be taken down.”

Sica said she believes that the Beecher Street building, which currently houses the Board of Education administrative offices, would serve as a better location and provide proper space for an arts center. The Board of Education will relocate to the North Center School property along with town departments in July.

Melinda Otlowski, a 20-year local resident and registered architect with Southington-based Halcyon Architects, argues that the building has been reviewed by two separate consultants and figures were set conservatively, however, and renovation costs are estimated at $200 per square foot but could wind up being less than that in the end.

“Last year at the end of June during hot day, we toured building to analyze structural condition,” Otlowski said. “To summarize, consultants agreed that overall the building in satisfactory condition for use. The building has been occupied over years and the town has done maintenance when needed.”

Otlowski and DeCroce said success of the project would depend on a combination of initial funding and maintaining the property, part of the reason the plan includes a retail space, but there is funding available.

DeCroce said a capital campaign is already underway and the organization has seen commitments from the Calvanese Foundation, the Main Street Foundation, the DePaolo Family Foundation and others. She said there is already $200,000 in commitments locally.

The organization could also be eligible for a variety of grants, including several available through the state’s Commission on Culture and Tourism, according to Tamara Dimitri.

Dimitri serves as head of the commission’s arts division and said with new funding available following a commitment made by Gov. Dannel Malloy, this type of project would be highly supported by the state. Evidence can be seen in the support provided to recently erected arts centers in towns like Vernon and Windsor, she said.

“The key to success lies in location, however,” DeCroce said. “With a full center in the heart of the community and an area that draws foot traffic, the center would draw $119,000 per year in revenues and be able to support itself sufficiently. Additional grant funding could also serve to offset costs and support future improvements to the property.”

DeCroce, a cancer survivor who has used art and painting in particular as a therapy, said the benefits to the community far outweigh the risk if the SCCA is able to secure use of the downtown location.

“We don’t need state of the art space and that’s not what we are looking to do here. We just need a space for the arts,” DeCroce said.

Arthur Cyr April 04, 2012 at 12:30 PM
This Art Center proposal is well intended, but seriously flawed. I hope they submit hard copies of last week's presentation to the Town Council for serious review. 1. The Town should NOT be a landlord to any group or entity. 2. It is a historical fact that Mr. Weichel & Mr. Tranquillo spent NO money in the last 15 years to maintain the building. 3. This group claims the building "in satisfactory condition for use", but the basement has NOT been used in decades due to water leaks in the stone foundation and mold. 4. The building has had numerous roof leaks into all upstairs departments every year. The second floor is structurally deficient to the point where the town has restricted storage over the past years. 5. They claim they "may" get State Tourism money for their Art program, but the State is broke and doesn't even advertise major attractions along major highways. 6. Based on their own sheets, they would have to receive 50%-75% of ALL available grants from about 24 different sources to achieve their $1.2 million goal. This is NOT a sound financial funding plan. 7. Their operating plan requires over $115,000 in annual income, renting out space to artists or this Art Center will sit EMPTY like the EMPTY Arts Center in Meriden. 8. Using the building as an Art Center would completely fill the Town Hall parking lot behind the Gura building 12-18 hours a day. That building has NO available parking for artists or customers! This is a major flaw in their plan.
Lucy April 04, 2012 at 02:20 PM
Any potential reuse of the Gura building needs to address the cost of renovations, the allocation of parking and handicap access to the second floor. As I recall, the second floor only may be accessed by stairs.
Tony M April 04, 2012 at 09:36 PM
I'm sorry that I was not able to attend the meeting concerning the Gura Building; as I would have brought up the following. 1.Verbal commitments are great however, unless a check had been issued, for the money and has been deposited into an account for specific use of the Commission for renovations and maintenance of the Gura building then, no money is available. In plain language, "A check in the hand is worth more than a verbal commitment". To quote Judge Judy, "If it's not in writing, it doesn't exist". 2. I want to know; in the event the Gura building is turned over to the Commission and the renovations paid for who would pay for maintenance of the building in the future; eg: Heat, electricity, water, waste removal, insurance for property damage and personal injuries, paying the taxes etc. Consider long term repairs; In the event of pipes leaking toilets needing to be repaired, electrical problems addressed, who will be responsible for paying these bills? I cannot see we as taxpayers having to pay them! We all have dreams however, we must be realistic I dreamed of being the Astronaut teacher in space however, my dream was dashed when I failed to answer one question on the form. We all know what happened to the Challenger Shuttle.
JB April 23, 2012 at 07:53 PM
A quote from the article: "The main thing I have recognized, in Southington there is a lack of exhibit and teaching space. We have a great community that ranks near the top of the state in education and quality of life – except when it comes to arts and culture,” DeCroce said. “When it comes to that aspect, Southington has the lowest grades in Connecticut of any town our size" This is incorrect and simply not true. Southington has had Paris In Plantsville Gallery and Studio for over two years now, and Mary DeCroce is very aware of it. Paris offers space to rent and exhibit, and has classes 3-4 days a week. I find it sad that she ignores a space that is there and even expanding, adding two more exhibition spaces and a cafe this year where Kess Cafe used to reisde next door to it. JB
Arthur Cyr April 23, 2012 at 09:18 PM
JB - Thanks for the info. I also tried to suggest other building locations (Eden Ave or North Main Street), but the short story seems to be they want THAT location facing the town green, and everything else is unacceptable. The major problem they will never eliminate is that they plan on basically taking over the Town Hall parking lot for Gura building use and that is unacceptable.

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