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Do we need a new arts center?

Public feedback session held, more to come; Elm Street location not favored

  • Meeting on Arts Center in Peterborough<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)
  • Meeting on Arts Center in Peterborough<br/><br/>(Staff photo by Dave Anderson)

PETERBOROUGH — No one seemed too excited about developing the brick garage next to the Community Center on Elm Street as an arts center. But the 30 or so people who filled the Select Board’s meeting room on Monday for a discussion of whether an arts center is feasible at all were enthusiastic about the concept, offering a range of suggestions to consultant Duncan Webb.

Webb has been hired, using funds from a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, to conduct a feasibility study on whether Peterborough needs and can support a new arts center building. He has met with representatives of a number of the arts organizations in town and visited several of the available performing arts and visual arts spaces. Monday’s meeting was a first opportunity for residents to share their opinions on what they would like to see.

Rodney Bartlett, Peterborough’s director of public works, opened the meeting by saying the focus should be on the concept of an arts center and not on the Elm Street garage, which is owned by the town and currently used to store Highway Department equipment

“It is just one option in front of us,” Bartlett said about the garage. “Nothing is precluded at this point.”

Webb, who runs a consulting firm in New York City, said his job is to do a needs assessment and then, if necessary, develop a business plan for an arts center. He’s still in the assessment phase, trying to determine if their is a demand for a center. He said a number of questions have to be answered.

“Who would use the space? Would it be busy? Would the lights be on enough nights to make it a success?” he asked.

Webb shared a number of slides of performance spaces he had visited in Peterborough, including the upper floor of the Town House, the Peterborough Players theater, Bass Hall at the Monadnock Center for History and Culture and the Lucy Hurlin Theatre at ConVal High School, which he described as “a pretty grim room,” although he said he was impressed with the quality of the theater work being done at the high school.

“There’s nothing spectacular,” Webb said of Peterborough’s facilities. “Is it sufficient? Is it where you want to be?”

Gordon Peery, who is organizing events in Bass Hall, said Webb should also make note of the Unitarian Church and the Peterborough Congregational Church, which have performance spaces.

“I would also add the Peterborough Community Theatre,” Peery said.

Will Chapman, executive director of Monadnock Music, said Peterborough already has a cultural district in the downtown area that works well for a variety of events. “Let’s focus on growing the pie,” he said. “We have a large, affluent population within an hour’s drive.”

Peery echoed that idea, saying a media blitz to draw people from the Boston area might be the most effective way to support local arts.

Sara Germain of Dublin said a better question to ask might be what programming needs are lacking, rather than focusing on facilities.

“There will soon be a revived theater 10 miles away in Jaffrey,” Germain said, referring to the Park Theatre. “It may or may not compete. It may fulfill some of the needs.”

One idea that drew some interest was to consider cooperating with the ConVal School District on some type of facility. Richard Sanders, a former music teacher at the high school, said the Lucy Hurlin Theatre is 43 years old and was never really designed for performances. A new theater for the school has been talked about in the past, he said, but the idea never went far.

“It’s time to get that discussion out in the open,” Sanders said.

His comments prompted one man to suggest that people might be reluctant to attend events at a facility connected to the high school because of concerns about quality. Others said the high school might be a good location, because unlike downtown, it has a lot of parking.

“Being on a road that is easily navigable is good,” said Keith Stevens of the Peterborough Players. He said the Players has not considered significant expansion of its program beyond the summer months because of its remote location on a narrow drive off Middle Hancock Road. “No one will come in the winter,” Stevens said.

As the meeting concluded, Webb said he expected to hold another session to get feedback in the near future. Several people in attendance said they appreciated the work done so far.

“I’ve been hoping to see something like this for years,” Sanders said.

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