Something’s happening with Boulevard School

By LISA CAPOBIANCO
STAFF WRITER
A new life is springing forth for the theater of the former Memorial Boulevard School.
Next month, the Memorial Boulevard Task Force will invite the public to take part in its efforts to restore and re-use one of Bristol’s community treasure through several different events.
On Saturday, Nov. 1 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., a community clean-up will take place to help get the theater ready for a series of Veterans Day programs. Tasks include sweeping, dusting ledges, cleaning windows and the stage floor, as well as vacuuming upholstered seats. Interested volunteers will meet at the Memorial Boulevard School theater entrance (north side), and community service letters are available for children and young adults who are looking for hours. Cleaning supplies will be available, and volunteers are encouraged to bring their own. Groups are welcome.
That same day from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., prospective tenants will have an opportunity to visit the theater during an open house, where they can ask questions about renting space in the building.
To date, at least 65 individuals have signed up for the clean-up, said City Councilor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu– chairman of the Memorial Boulevard Task Force– during a meeting held last Tuesday.
On Sunday, Nov. 9, a musical show with a patriotic theme, “God Bless the USA,” will take place in the theater at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 each, and veterans are admitted for free. Zoppo said the show will feature community talent.
The entertainment will continue on Tuesday, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. with a Veterans Day ceremony, followed by a Bristol Brass and Wind Ensemble concert at 7 p.m.
“We are looking to fill the room,” said Zoppo. “It’s important for all of us to see the potential of what that theater can be.”
During the meeting, the Task Force shared its progress report with the Town Council on the future re-use of the Memorial Boulevard School building and adjacent property. The Task Force used the Planning Commission’s recommendation as a starting point, and also spoke with city departments for suggestions and space needs they may have now or in the future. Since the Task Force was formed this past spring, it has investigated uses of the facility, management of the building, landscape plan and parking, funding and budget, among other tasks.
The 15-page report includes a background summary of the work that the Task Force completed up to this point in time, as well as a chronology of tasks and goals that were accomplished. The report also included preliminary recommendations, such as reserving the building for multi-purpose commercial and community use, and operating the building by a new non-profit entity. According to the report, another recommendation was made to restore the theater of the old Memorial Boulevard School, and to have management of the building be a joint responsibility of the city and the new non-profit that will ultimately be in charge of the building’s operation. In addition, the report recommended a Conditions Assessment survey to be done by January to provide the financial information needed to create a 10-year forecast of required capital costs.
Jim Albert, chair of the use-case subcommittee on the Task Force, said they looked at several different ways to re-use the building. He mentioned a number of re-use options that were rejected, including residential, sale of the building, and moving City Hall offices there. But when the subcommittee looked at arts, culture and entertainment as a way to re-use the building, Task Force members and the public showed much support, said Albert during the meeting. In addition, educational, business, and commercial uses for the building also received support.
Albert added that he spoke with ESPN about the possibility of donating some of its memorabilia to include in the building, calling it a “huge tourist draw to Bristol.”
During her report to the Council, Zoppo also addressed concerns that have been made about the sustainability of the project. Zoppo said there are now available grant programs that the building can be eligible for since it recently received its listing on the State Register of Historic Place.
“That has opened up a portal of a variety of grants…that will lessen taxpayer impact on whatever the rehab costs would be,” said Zoppo, adding that financial sustainability also will be covered through private fund raising. “The project, the building, the location, the synergy with the park, the historic component—all of this should be looked at as a city asset.” We’re preserving something that’s important to Bristol’s past.”
Zoppo later noted sustainability of Bristol Historical Society, which was bought from the city for $1 in 2001. Zoppo said since then, a group of private citizens raised over a million dollars through private funds to renovate the building, which was formerly a neglected school.
“It’s the oldest municipal building that’s still standing in Bristol, and I think we can do a similar thing,” said Zoppo.
Andrea Adams, who has volunteered on the Task Force, noted different communities in Connecticut that have undertaken similar projects. During the meeting, Adams mentioned the re-use of Southington’s old Gura Building, which will now be used as an arts center, as well as the Buttonwood Tree in Middletown and the Augusta Curtiss Cultural Center in Meriden.
“There are towns just around us that have actually done this, and are quite far ahead, and I’m hoping we can catch up,” said Adams.
Zoppo said all of the money raised once costs are covered for Memorial Boulevard School will enter a fund that will continue to pay for expenses.
“The long-term view is to have a fund that will always be in place…to serve as grant matches, etc,” said Zoppo. “We have an opportunity to have a fund agreement, and we will begin that process immediately with Main Street Community Foundation.”
Meanwhile, the Task Force also chose Drummey Rosane Anderson, Inc., to enter into a $25,000 contract for a survey of existing conditions and conceptual design engineering for Memorial Boulevard School. The survey would serve as a major component of the Task Force’s report to the City Council on potential re-use of the building.
During the meeting, the Council voted to approve the contract. City Councilor Eric Carlson voted against the $25,000 contract. Carlson said there is no need to spend money on a new survey that will provide information the city already knows. He suggested rather than spending $25,000 to examine the building, they should go out to bid to replace something outdated in the school.
“This is an engineering survey on existing equipment, which we already had surveyed twice since 2008,” said Carlson, noting a previous report indicating that the boilers needed replacement.  “In 2008…there was another Memorial Boulevard report done which covered all of the equipment. In 2010, the space needs study covered all of the equipment.”
Zoppo replied that although she understands Carlson’s concerns, the Task Force is looking for much more. She said through the survey, the Task Force hopes to present the Board of Finance and City Council an accurate picture of what those costs represent.
“What we’re trying to do is layer on their existing knowledge of the building…take it to the next level, fitting what we know needs to happen there—heating and cooling being a primary issue, but there’s other issues,” said Zoppo. “It’s not only a building analysis, but it’s also a sign in construction costs…so based on their body of knowledge…it was far and above a better fit for us because we are not going to recreate the wheel in having yet another study that gathers dust.”
Roger Rousseau, the city’s purchasing agent, said the Task Force is trying to determine what is truly necessary before taking the next step. He noted that the school’s elevator is in poor condition, and the building does not have air conditioning.
Zoppo said key issues that the Task Force has identified includes the ADA code compliancy, zoning compliance for uses in parking, mechanical and electrical plumbing upgrade and anything that would be considered to be “self-supporting” uses, which the theater falls under.
“I think this is probably the best bet and investment that we have with this integrated design process…to get those numbers that we need,” said Zoppo.
For more information on the Task Force’s progress report, visit the city website at www.ci.bristol.ct.us /index.aspx?nid=563.