Unknown Buyer Has Agreement To Purchase Monomoy Theatre

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local Theater

A wall facing the Monomoy Theatre courtyard where announcements are posted about upcoming shows is blank. With the theater property under agreement for sale to an unknown buyer, the prospect of the theater remaining open appears dim, although some theater supporters remain optimistic. TIM WOOD PHOTO

Theater Supporters 'Remain Hopeful

CHATHAM – They're not giving up, but supporters of the Monomoy Theatre are wondering what their next move will be now that the Main Street property is under agreement to be sold to another buyer.

Exactly who that buyer is was still a mystery early this week.

The buyer is not affiliated with the theater. Mary Ann Harwood, chairwoman of Monomoy Theatre, Inc., said that while a group of theater supporters made an offer on the property, they do not have it under agreement.

Slater Anderson of LandVest, the Boston real estate firm that listed the property for sale, confirmed in an email that the sale is pending but said he could not disclose confidential terms of the agreement.

According to the property's MLS listing, the 2.7 acre property is under agreement with contingencies, which usually means that there are stipulations that must be met, such as permit requirements, before the sale closes. The listing states that the estimated closing date will be April 30.

“Of course we remain hopeful,” Harwood said Tuesday, but added that there have been no new developments since the pending sale was revealed Jan. 30.

Best-selling author Bernard Cornwell, who acts in plays at Monomoy and is on the board of the Monomoy Theatre, Inc., also expressed cautious optimism.

“My view is that the fat lady has drawn a deep breath, but she ain’t sung yet!” he said in an email.

The Steindler Family Trust, which owns the property at 776 Main St. and 70 Depot Rd., listed it for sale two weeks ago for $3.95 million. Anderson would not reveal the amount of the pending sale.

Harwood said theater supporters were trying to find out more information about the situation. Community Development Director Kathleen Donovan, Natural Resource Director Robert Duncanson and Health Agent Judy Giorgio said they were unaware of inquiries made to town departments about the property, and no permit applications or plans have been filed.

Sale of the property to a developer would likely end its 86-year history as a theater. Theater supporters had said a 2019 season would likely not happen unless it could secure the property by March.

Unless circumstances change, next month, lighting and other equipment given to the University of Hartford when it took over the lease of the theater from Ohio University will be removed, according to Alan Rust, artistic director of the theater and director of the drama program at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford. The lease expires March 31. The equipment will be placed in storage in Hartford but “it could be brought back easily” if the current agreement falls through and theater supporters are able to buy or somehow secure use of the theater, Rust said.

“It's not that hard to move the stuff from here to there and back,” he said.

The Steindler family decided to sell the theater after the University of Hartford declined to renew a lease on the property. That came after town inspections last summer that found numerous health and safety violations, chiefly in the 11 bedrooms used to house theater students. It wasn't the cost of the work needed to satisfy inspectors that the University objected to, Rust said. The owners reportedly had not made any substantial improvements to the property in years, while private donations to the University of Hartford paid for upkeep and repairs, including recent shingling of a section of the main house. The University and private donors were no longer prepared to continue to pay rent, taxes and insurance as well as take care of the property, Rust said. The same situation led to Ohio University to end its association with the theater in 2014, when the lease was assumed by the University of Hartford, which had been involved in the operation for several years.

Money to do the work necessary to address the violations is available if theater supporters buy or lease the property, added Rust.

Local supporters of the theater planned to form a limited liability company (LLC) to try to purchase the property and had reportedly enlisted at least four supporters to put up the money to buy the 2.7-acre parcel, which is assessed by the town at $1.9 million. A nonprofit was to have then launched a fundraising campaign and obtain local, state and federal grants to buy the theater from the LLC. Those plans appear to be on hold pending the outcome of the current agreement.

The board of selectmen has strongly backed a private effort to save the Monomoy Theatre. After meeting in executive session last Wednesday, the board took no action on town purchase of the properties but issued a statement in support of retaining its traditional use as a theater. In a statement the board called the theater “a treasured part of Chatham's cultural and artistic heritage” and offered its “good offices” to help keep it open.

Asked if selectmen would reconsider some sort of town intervention if a new buyer planned to close the theater, board chairman Dean Nicastro said that has not been discussed and officials would have to analyze what role, if any, the town could play.

He noted that the property is under the jurisdiction of the historic business district commission, which can prohibit demolition of the three historic structures on the property, which could impact a buyer's development plans. The property was advertised as a “development opportunity” in downtown Chatham. It is located in the general business zoning district “which offers a variety of by right, special permit and special condition uses for commercial and/or residential development,” according to the listing.

It's frustrating not knowing who the buyer is, Nicastro said. “I'm as anxious as anyone to know who it is,” he said, adding that continues to receive in inquiries from people wanting to know how they can help save the theater.

Rust said he was as much in the dark about the buyer as anyone.

“We just don't know anything about it,” he said.

Originally a toy factory, the Monomoy Theatre has hosted stage productions since 1932. It became the summer theater program of Ohio University in 1958 after it was purchased by Elizabeth Baker, wife of then-university president John C. Baker.

Often referred to as a theater boot camp, the Monomoy program hosts approximately 30 student actors and technicians who stage eight productions over a 10-week summer season. The students live, eat and work on the campus, which contains three residences, the theater building and several other structures, including a scene shop and rehearsal space.