City undecided on fate of Hill St. school house

By LISA CAPOBIANCO
STAFF WRITER
The city has yet to decide whether or not to sell a vacant schoolhouse on Hill Street to The Studio or to Kitty Quarters, a nonprofit cats-only rescue organization.
During a recent Real Estate Committee meeting, at least a dozen people from the community expressed in a public hearing what they would like to see happen with the old schoolhouse. The committee will review and discuss the options, and will add them to the agenda during its next meeting in January.
Ginger Grant, owner of The Studio on West Street, said having her business expand to 165 Hill St. would be a “stepping stone” into moving local artists into the former Memorial Boulevard School once it becomes a cultural center. The Studio, which opened this past June, currently has three in-house artists, offers studio hours and classes.
As The Studio has already outgrown its space, said Grant, the Hill Street location would be used as workshop space for the in-house artists, and its 5,000 square feet of space would accommodate eight in-house artists as well as larger classes. If it moves into the schoolhouse, The Studio’s West Street location would be used for retail space, an art gallery and a workshop for the community, said Grant, who also is an active member of “All Heart Art Squad,” which aims to spread arts and culture in the city.
“We have a wonderful outreach to the community,” said Grant, adding how she has always dreamed of having her own art studio.  “What I’d really like to see is younger artists’ ability to have space where they can become successful and become a mentor to other people as they get older.”
Since The Studio is not a nonprofit, it would generate about $7,000 in taxes for the city if its bid on the old schoolhouse is approved.
Bristol resident Kevin Martin said The Studio has a lot to offer, as Grant has helped young adults like his daughter build their self-esteem through art.
“I think she brings a lot to the community,” said Martin.
Melissa “Missy” Mitchell, said working with Grant at The Studio has helped her express herself.
“We’re helping everyone who walks into The Studio,” said Mitchell.
But Kitty Quarters hoped that the Real Estate Committee would consider having the Hill Street facility used for cats. This past fall the committee rejected the bid made by Kitty Quarters, which formed two online petitions, with over 200 people expressing support for the sale of the old schoolhouse to the nonprofit.
If located at the schoolhouse, Kitty Quarters would not only serve as a shelter but would also as an educational resource for families by providing a pet pantry and library and spay/neuter vouchers while encouraging animal welfare careers.
“The credibility of the building and our presence in the community are what people will support and what grant makers demand,” said Roberta Chamalian, president of Kitty Quarters.
Although she is not against the arts, Chamalian said the old schoolhouse would offer a quiet, solitude place for her nonprofit, and The Studio should stay downtown.
During the meeting, Chamalian also noted the impact Kitty Quarters had made on people of all walks of life, including the elderly, who benefitted from the non-profits visiting cats program, and people with autism who have benefitted from therapy cats. In addition, the cat food pantry has helped owners feed their pets.
“People of all ages need care, and they need the care of a family pet,” said Chamalian. “Cats can help fill that void.”
Linda Higginson, a volunteer of Animal Rescue Foundation, said there is “a huge need for more shelters.”
Jeff O’Donnell, who has performed TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) in Bristol for about 15 years, said selling the schoolhouse to Kitty Quarters is a natural outgrowth of the city’s new feral cat ordinance.
“Now we need a place for [cats] to be, and this is just a natural follow-up,” said O’Donnell. “There really are no facilities in Bristol to house stray cats, so this would be the perfect place to get them off the streets. What we need is a central facility.”
Peter Chamalian of Burlington asked committee members if they could help Kitty Quarters find an appropriate place to pursue its mission if the Hill Street facility is sold to The Studio.
“You have a difficult decision,” said Chamalian. city-of-bristol-seal-black