Nashua arts center proponents remain hopeful as plan moves in front of voters
Supporters had hoped to influence the aldermen to move forward on funding a new arts center project proposed for the former Alec’s Shoe Store on Main Street, but six aldermen voted against the proposal.
City leaders did however agree to place the issue in front of city voters. The nonbinding vote will take place in November and may prompt aldermen to eventually OK a bond to pay for the construction of the arts hub on Main Street.
“Last night, walking into that room, I had a great deal of hope,” said Paul Shea of Great American Downtown, who has championed the effort to bring a top-tier arts hub to the city. “The motion by alderman (Ben) Clemons to put it on the ballot gives me hope still.” A $15.5 million plan includes the cost of acquiring the now vacant former Alec's Shoe Store and fitting it out into a mix of performance space, support space, retail and some gallery space.
Marylou Blaisdell attended Tuesday night's meeting and owns Designwares, located across from the Alec's site. "I think a lot of people made statements that we must have this performing arts center to bring downtown back," Blaisdell told NH1 News on Wednesday. "I think we have a great downtown. I think a performing arts center enhances the community it's in."
Blaisdell is the chairman of the city's Downtown Improvement Committee."All Nashuans, no matter where they live, will have access to great art, not just performances," she said. "It will handle lectures, book signings ... it's limitless on what you can do if we have a facility of this size in Nashua." Ward 3 Alderman David Shoneman said Wednesday that he agrees that an arts center would be good for the city. "I want to see an arts center succeed. I agree with all that," but the plan "wasn't realistic enough. There wasn't any upfront private funding," Shoneman said.
He said there was similar enthusiasm several years ago for a performance center on Court Street, which has not been successful. "It sounds like we're going down the same path," he said. "These places don't run on enthusiasm." Blaisdell said that some people have said that $4 million is not enough of an endowment to cover "shortfalls" in the operating budget of the proposed center. "I think that with a professional organization that understands how to run an arts center, you will have success with it," she said. "Arts centers all over the state show that an arts center does provide an economic benefit for a community."
Other downtown businesses owners agreed with Blaisdell.
"I'm very disappointed and disheartened," said Jody Gage, who runs Fortin and Gage Florist. "I'm a fourth generation Nashuan; second generation business owner in downtown. I've grown up in the downtown area of Nashua. I've seen a lot of change that's gone on. The downtown has morphed over the years. I think we're at a critical juncture. "I think the performing arts center is a crucial element of the growth of the downtown area. It could be a potential anchor and focal point of the downtown. I'm very disappointed some aldermen can't see that."
He praised what he characterized as a versatile design for the facility, and he had confidence that the venue would be able to draw lucrative acts that could pay the bills, using the example of Tupelo Music Hall which recently moved from Londonderry to Derry into a bigger facility. "They're paying a mortgage as well," Gage said. "I think it definitely has legs and can support itself." Alderman-at-large Mark Cookson, one of the six who voted no Tuesday night, called himself "an avid supporter of the arts. The performing arts were a big part of what I've experienced growing up." "When I look at all that needs the attention of the city, while I support the arts, I didn't think it was what was needed at this time at that location," he said Wednesday.
Cookson said issues involving the Burke Street property, logistics involving potential plans to move several city departments and the possibly the need to bond $48 million to rehabilitate the Elm Street Middle School along with other issues gave him pause. "Where I'm at is there are so many competing priorities for the city, and we can't just look at the arts center in a vacuum," Cookson said. "We have to look at all the needs coming before us."
Regarding the issues of school upkeep and road repair and the suggestion Tuesday night that priorities were not being met, Gage said those expenses are constant. "Those things will always be there. A performing arts center opportunity only comes around one in awhile," he said. Gage pointed out the boom in apartment construction in the downtown area at both the Brady Sullivan project on Franklin Street and the Rennaissance Downtown project near the Merrimack River on Bridge Street. With an influx of new residents, he said, "now they need some place to be attracted to and stay here."
"People today are going for experiences," Blaisdell said, and along with wanting to shop and eat at area restaurants, people will say to themselves, "what can I do?" "If we don't have 'what can I do,' we lose millennials. We lose everybody," she said. She encouraged people to read information on the city's website about the proposed project. "I think they are very strong numbers," she said.
Blaisdell acknowledged the city has other financial obligations, but "I think the city also has an obligation to the health of the citizens in providing culture." "They're getting it," she added. "They're just going elsewhere to get it." Gage supports the upcoming vote. "I think this is probably a good way to do it. If a majority do support it, hopefully, the aldermen will look back and change their vote in support," Gage said.
Shoneman said the November election could be key. "This could be a squeaker of a victory or a devastating loss for them," he said. "We'll see what happens when November comes." Cookson said if the nonbinding November vote "shows wide support across the entire city, not just a subset of the population, then whoever sits on the board in 2018 would have to decide."
"I'm going to continue to be hopeful," Blaisdell said. "I understand. Fifteen million is nothing to sneeze at," but, "the fat lady has not sung yet."