By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Funding passed last week for the first phase of the Memorial Boulevard Community Cultural Center project.
Last Tuesday, the Mayor’s Capital Improvement Committee and the Board of Finance approved $13.3 million for the project, which includes a 750-seat theater as well as mechanical and electrical upgrades and other improvements of the Memorial Boulevard building.
The capital improvement committee first approved the funds during a special meeting held before the monthly Board of Finance meeting. The approved funding includes an
appropriation of $500,000 for additional design costs.
Cheryl Thibeault, the chairperson of the Board of Finance who also serves on the capital improvement committee, said the approved funding “keeps the project moving in the right direction.”
“This is a valuable project,” said Thibeault.
Board of Finance member and committee member John Smith, who also serves on the Memorial Boulevard Building Committee, agreed.
“All those involved can work together to finalize all the necessary planning for this initiative and get phase one of the project done,” said Smith, who has a long history with the Memorial Boulevard School building.
Although the Board of Finance approved to increase the bonding appropriation for phase one of the project, there was a caveat. Out of the $13.3 million appropriation, up to $500,000 could be used. The Board of Finance would have to approve any additional funds to finalize the plans for phase one.
Smith said this caveat allows the architect and construction manager involved with the project to create a “detailed cost estimate” for phase one. Design documents are expected to be completed between four and six months once the building committee directs the architect to proceed with this part of the process.
“This is an absolute necessity,” said Smith. “Phase one of the Memorial Boulevard project is not simply the restoration of the theater—it also addresses upgrades to the
various mechanical, electrical and other critical operating systems that function in the entire facility. These are major cost drivers of the project.”
Until the design documents are completed along with more refined cost estimates, and both the Planning and Zoning Commissions review the design plans, the $13.3 million figure could change, noted Thibeault.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty behind the project,” said Thibeault. “This number [$13.3 million] may not be final. We don’t have final design documents yet.”
Board of Finance member Ron Burns said he voted against the $500,000 appropriation because the motion was tied to the $13.3 million.
“If they said $500,000 just for construction costs, I would have voted yes because that’s information we need to know before we move forward,” said Burns, who also voted against the two resolutions that the Board of Finance passed. “I just don’t want to rush into a decision without having answers to those questions.”
Although he does want to see the cultural center move forward, Burns said he still has unanswered questions, such as how the theater would deal with operating losses.
“We need to make prudent investments with the taxpayers in mind,” said Burns. “My concern is we put in $13.3 million. After the first year, if they can’t make ends meet, what happens?”
Moving forward, the Board of Finance recognized various challenges that come
with the project, including its sustainability of the theater.
“I’m not convinced that the center as a stand alone is financially sustainable,” said Thibeault, noting the different possible uses for the building.
Like most theaters, said Smith, revenues from productions may not be sufficient to support all of its expenses.
“Just as with other theater enterprises (i.e. the Bushnell, Thomaston Opera House and others), it will be necessary to garner financial support annually from those who have an interest in culture and the arts whether they be individuals, groups and/or foundations,” said Smith, adding how parking at the cultural center is another issue currently being addressed.
Smith said that who or what will occupy the rest of the Memorial Boulevard building is also a concern. Currently, discussions remain ongoing for a proposal made by D’Amato Realty and Lexington Partners to relocate City Hall to 10 Main St. Part of the proposal includes moving the Board of Education offices and Youth Services to the cultural center.
Burns said this proposal brings up further questions about the project, such as how much it would cost to operate the Board of Education and Youth Services at the Memorial Boulevard facility.
“Is there going to be a savings in operational costs?” said Burns.
The Joint Board is expected to take action on the $13.3 million funding for the Memorial Boulevard Community Cultural Center project on Aug. 8.