School doesn't want to leave site proposed for Portsmouth arts center


PORTSMOUTH —  Advocates want a proposed community arts center to be located in the former Coggeshall School building. The school that's been leasing space at the town-owned property for a decade, however, doesn't want to move out.

"This would be a great imposition to us," Stephen Bailey, headmaster of Aquidneck Island Christian Academy (AICA), said Tuesday.

That's just one conundrum facing the Town Council, which accepted a detailed final report on the proposed center from the Portsmouth Arts & Cultural Committee Monday night. The report is more than four years in the making; the committee was created by the council in August 2008 and charged with exploring the viability of an arts and cultural center in town.

George Furbish, committee chairman, recommended that the council designate the north section of the former Coggeshall School building at 321 East Main Road to be used for the arts center. Mr. Furbish also asked the council to enter into negotiations with the nonprofit Portsmouth Arts Guild (PAG), the proposed manager of the center, for the purpose of drafting a long-term lease for the site.

Mr. Furbish said the committee looked at nine town-owned properties, but the Coggeshall building was the only one that didn't require expensive new construction and would allow an arts center to begin operations with minimal renovations. The 12,000-square-foot north wing has six classrooms that are already ready for use, he said.

The town wouldn't be responsible for the cost of any renovations to the building, such as upgrading the bathrooms or installing sprinklers, Mr. Furbish said. Those funds would be raised by PAG, he said.

According to the committee's report, the arts center would be used for exhibitions by PAG, performances by Portsmouth Community Theater and other groups, workshops by Common Fence Music, children's programs and more. A performance and gathering space would be able to seat an audience of 130, with the potential for expansion to up to 200. Although serving primarily Portsmouth, the center would welcome groups from neighboring communities.

"An arts center would serve the needs of all demographic groups in town," said Mr. Furbish. "It would also turn a diminishing town asset into a vibrant community center."

Several members of the audience spoke up in favor of the proposed center. Ray Davis of the Portsmouth Prevention Coalition said the arts center would be "a protective factor" against drug and alcohol abuse among local youth. The more activities available to them, he said, "the chance for them to get involved in substance abuse lessens."

Bill Clark, the town's director of business development, said the center would be a great asset for the town. It could draw visitors to Portsmouth and would also get the needed renovations to the building done, he said.

Concerns raised

Although several council members spoke in favor of the proposal and praised Mr. Furbish's committee for its hard work, some said they were worried about the loss of revenue to the town if the plan went through. AICA pays the town $18,000 annually to lease the building, while the committee's proposal is for PAG to pay only $1 a year — the same amount the senior center pays to lease its building, Mr. Furbish pointed out.

Mr. Furbish said the arts center would be paying the town "in-kind" services in the way of building renovations, and the loss of the $18,000 lease would translate to only an additional 15 cents per taxpayer every month.

"That's an interesting way to look at it," said council member David Gleason, who said the town needs more sources of revenue, not fewer. Although he supports the arts, the town needs more information to see how the proposal "fits into the big picture," Mr. Gleason said.

The length of the proposed lease was also questioned. The arts committee asked for  a 25-year lease, but council member Keith Hamilton pointed out that the town charter limited leases to 10 years on town property. Council President James Seveney said he'd be more comfortable with a three- to five-year lease with an option for the town to share in any revenue.

"This could be a money-maker," Mr. Seveney said.

He also suggested that the arts committee collaborate with AICA to see if the building could somehow be shared.

The council took no action on the matter, but Mr. Seveney directed Town Administrator John Klimm to talk further with the arts committee and Mr. Bailey at AICA and report back.

No plans to move

On Tuesday, Mr. Bailey said the school has every intention to seek a lease extension with the town. "Obviously we don't know what the Town Council will do, but our hope is that we can stay here," he said. "The arts council knows that."

As for a possible partnership with an arts center, Mr. Bailey indicated that it might be difficult. "We've allowed the Portsmouth (Community Theater) use of the building as they have requested. That gets pretty stressful from time to time with two entities occupying the building. We use every square inch of this building," he said. "We have a thrift store attached to the school at the south end that not only feeds the community but helps the school stay afloat."

AICA is a private K-12 school that serves about 50 students.


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