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.