Council advances boulevard plan

By TAYLOR HARTZ
STAFF WRITER
The curtain has not been closed on the future of Memorial Boulevard School.
The City Council showed unanimous support last week for plans to consider the continued restoration of MBS as a part of an overall downtown restoration.
While the venue’s first floor has seen success as a theater this season, the Mayor’s Task Force on MBS  submitted a report to the City Council last week, proposing that the city use the space to develop a community cultural and arts center.
During a special meeting on July 22, the council voted to approve the report.
All councilors voted yes on four items Wednesday – to accept recommendations made in the final report, to request that the Board of Finance release $400,000 for designing the project’s first phase, and to form two new committees to oversee the Phase 1 design work and the formation of a non-profit for the future operation of MBS.
The council heard the report from MBSTF Chair Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, who has led the 15-month initiative.
“It has been four years since that school closed its doors and it’s time for a new future,” said Zoppo-Sassu.
The six-page report, submitted to the council on July 14, outlines plans for a community cultural and arts center to fill the 45,000 square feet not being used for the theater.
The first phase of the project involves immediate development of the theater and first floor, while the task force begins the creation of a nonprofit that will eventually take over long-term ownership of the building from the city.
The nonprofit will be responsible for seeking grants and donations for funding necessary to bring the building up to code, after “seed monies” from the city are used to start Phase 1 renovations.
For non-theater space, the MBSTF recommends use as a location for visitors’ centers, retail stores, restaurants, nonprofit entities, art studios, co-working spaces and municipal offices.
The proposal also outlines plans for seeking a national historic registry designation for the building, and discusses the economic benefits of investing in city arts centers.
Following the report, the council heard from several members of the task force. Dave Mills gave a presentation on the success of the theater so far, Frank Stawski, member of the Public Works Board, discussed plans for architectural assessments, and Peter DelMastro, zoning commissioner, gave a financial overview of the project.
Hearing questions from the council about whether future financial responsibility will fall on the city, Zoppo-Sassu described the release of design funding as asking the city for “a conceptual buy-in.”
“The only financial commitment the city is being asked to make at this time is to fund the detailed design study for phase one” said DelMastro.
The $400,000 planning price tag accounts for 6 percent of the expected construction costs for the first floor and theater.
The design plans funded by the city will provide hard construction numbers for the future of the project, rather than speculated costs, said Zoppo-Sassu.
The council heard from several citizens during the public comments session, with most speaking in favor of the report.
“This report creates a roadmap for success,” said Cheryl Barb, who urged the council to look at the historical significance and future potential of the building.
With few opposing the project, public comments largely supported the need for more entertainment in the city in order to revitalize the downtown district.
Some residents referenced other successful entertainment initiatives made in the city, including the Bristol Blues, while others listed countless towns across the country that had successfully installed similar community centers.
“If you’re going to have a vibrant walk-able downtown, you need to have something vibrant you can walk to” said resident Tom Doyle in support of the report.
“I think the community has spoken,” said Zoppo-Sassu,”the re-use of the former Memorial Boulevard School is a priority, and is worthy of inclusion in future capital budgets.”
Mayor Ken Cockayne, who announced his support for the release of the $400,000 in planning funds on July 15, said he hopes the task force will start fundraising immediately, to determine community support while the designs are completed.
“It’s a step whether you’re for the project or not, to find out where we’re going go next,” said Cockayne, after voting to approve the release of funding.
Zoppo-Sassu said while she is pleased with the unanimous vote, and hopes  “that it means that there will be support as we focus in on the real numbers as well as the other pieces of the planning for this building’s new future.”
The task force is already planning for what Zoppo-Sassu referred to as “the next chapter” of the project.
The building committee, focused on using the approved $400,000 to determine real project costs, was scheduled to meet Wednesday.
The creation of an Organizing Committee is also already underway.
The Organizing Committee will focus on creating the nonprofit entity, developing the center’s management structure, fundraising, and pursuing the national historical register listing.
The committee is scheduled to report back to the council on Sept. 8.

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