Update: Selectmen Support Effort To Save Monomoy Theatre

By: Tim Wood

Students work together to put up the Monomoy Theatre sign last June, a ritual at the start of each summer's season. Artistic Director Alan Rust is on the right. Theater supporters were working this week to put together an offer to buy the downtown property. FILE PHOTO

CHATHAM –On Friday the Chatham Board of Selectmen put the "good offices" of the town squarely behind the effort to save the Monomoy Theatre

The board met in executive session to discuss the possibility of the town purchasing the property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd., which went on the market a week ago for $3.95 million.

In a statement issued Friday, the board said it values the tradition of the theater as a "treasured part of Chatham's cultural and artistic heritage" and expressed "strong support for private efforts to acquire the property" to restore and preserve the theater.  But no action was taken on town purchase of the property.

The board "strongly" urged any buyer to "maintain the historic use of a theater on the property" and offered the "good offices" of the town "to help facilitate that goal."

The state said that Town Manager Jill Goldsmith and town departments will work with a new owner to accelerate and facilitate the needed improvements to the theater so that it could open for the 2019 season.

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Monomoy Theatre supporters are working to form a limited liability company that can purchase the theater property and hold it while a nonprofit group raises money to keep the theater open.

LandVest, a “luxury” real estate firm in Boston, listed the property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd. for sale last Thursday for $3.9 million.

Mary Ann Harwood, chairman of the nonprofit Monomoy Theatre, Inc., said the group has heard that at least two offers have already been made on the property, putting pressure on Monomoy supporters to put together a purchase proposal. Individuals are working at putting together a limited liability company (LLC) that can make an offer and are seeking investors, she said; she declined to name those involved at this time.

If the LLC can purchase the property, it will hold on to it while a new nonprofit is formed that will conduct a fund-raising campaign to raise the money to buy the theater from the LLC, Harwood said. But time is of the essence; in order to raise the curtain on a season this summer, the property has to be under agreement by March.

The Steindler Family Trust, which owns the property, decided to sell late last year after the University of Hartford opted not to renew its lease on the theater. The university's decision came after inspections last summer by town officials found numerous health and safety violations, mostly in buildings used as dorms to house students. Earlier this month, the trust notified Monomoy Theatre, Inc., which made an unsuccessful an offer to buy the property, that the 2.7 acres of land and its seven buildings was going on the open market.

Harwood said she didn't think things would move this fast.

“I didn't expect to have to move so quickly on this,” she said Tuesday following a meeting of the Monomoy Theatre, Inc., which was formed three years ago when Ohio University ended its sponsorship of the theater. She said because the group has been inactive most of the time since then, a new nonprofit will be formed to raise money, apply for state, federal and local grants, and, they hope, acquire the theater property.

“There are grants available for renovation of theater property and facilities,” Harwood said. “That would be a huge help for this.” If a purchase happens, she added that the theater could be used year-round rather than seasonally, “more like a performing arts center.”

Best-selling author Bernard Cornwell, a member of Monomoy Theatre, Inc. who has appeared often on the Monomoy stage, said said he expects an LLC will be able to raise the money to buy the theater, “but whether their offer will be accepted, I don't know.” If it is, he has little doubt a subsequent fund-raising campaign would be successful.

“We very much get the impression that people are desperately keen to keep the theater,” he said.

If a theater-affiliated group can secure the property, addressing the health and safety issues will be critical in being ready for a 2019 season, said Artistic Director Alan Rust. He plans to contact town officials to determine what work needs to be done immediately in order to allow students to live in the dorms, and whether a plan can be put in place to address other issues later.

Every year since 1958, more than 30 students, including actors and technicians, are recruited from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, where Rust teaches, and other colleges and universities to put on eight plays in a 10-week season, often rehearsing two plays while performing a third. Students live and work on the Monomoy campus. Significant logistics are involved in running the theater, he said.

“We start in early March,” he said. “I have to know by then” if a sale can be arranged. A summer season would help reach summer patrons in a fund-raising campaign, Harwood added.

“A lot of people want to keep this theater,” said Cornwell. “I think a lot of people think it's an incredibly valuable part of the town, and if we can get hold of it and do a great deal of work on it, there's no reason why it shouldn't become a performing arts center for the town and not just open in the summer.”

Town officials are also interested in the future of the property. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith, Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson met with the property owner and their representative at the town offices last Thursday, but did not tour the property, Donovan said. Chairman of Selectmen Dean Nicastro called an executive session of the board for this Wednesday evening to hear about that meeting and discuss whether there is a role for the town in helping to save the theater. He said he's not sure what the board of selectmen can do, but he wants to have an open discussion behind closed doors, allowed under the state Open Meeting Law because it involves the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property.

“I personally feel that the theater is a treasure in town,” Nicastro said. “I would like to see the town, in some fashion, whatever is reasonable, use its good offices to try to facilitate the achievement of that end.”

Some on social media have suggested the property might be a good place for the town to build a new senior center, but Nicastro said he continues to support the selectmen's choice of land on Middle Road for that purpose.

“It's not something I have considered,” he said of looking at the Monomoy Theatre property as a possible senior center location.

Slater Anderson of LandVest said in an email that the town and Monomoy Theatre, Inc. are “both aware of the property's availability.” However, the Steindler trustees “wish to keep negotiations private and confidential. They ask the same of any interested buyer,” he wrote.

He declined to comment when asked if offers have been made on the property.

Harwood said she was disappointed that LandVest advertised the property as a “development opportunity,” listing among its assets “the vacant Monomoy Theatre.”

“It's not vacant,” she said. “It's between seasons.” The listing states the property provides “investors and developers with a unique opportunity to acquire one of the few privately owned, large-acreage commercial properties in downtown Chatham.”

The town's assessing departments lists the combined value of the properties at $1.9 million significantly below the asking price. Both parcels are commercially zoned and are also within the historic business district commission, which would have jurisdiction over exterior changes to the buildings, at least three of which are historic.

Nicastro said he'd heard from many people who were upset that the property might be sold to a developer and the theater could go dark after more than eight decades. He raised the idea of a process similar to one used to preserve the Eldredge Garage property, when a private group bought the land and held it until the town could take the purchase to town meeting, which is similar to what the Monomoy Theatre, Inc., group is pursuing. Again, though, he was not sure what role the town could play.

“There's a lot of interest in town to save the Monomoy Theatre,” Nicastro said. “I just think it's the right thing to look into.”

The theater's future hinges on whether an LLC can be formed to make an offer, and whether the trust will accept it. Even with those uncertainties, Cornwell said he believes the chances of Monomoy Theatre having a 2019 season are better now than a week ago.

“We're trying to keep the curtain up,” he said.