A nonprofit group attempting to renovate a historic theater seen as a linchpin for the redevelopment of Stoughton’s downtown has taken a major step toward funding the effort.
The town’s Community Preservation Committee last week gave preliminary support for using $500,000 as a matching grant toward restoring the State Theatre. The committee will be drafting a warrant article on the expenditure for a vote at Town Meeting in May; since it involves a bond issue, the proposal would require two-thirds approval.
The Friends of the State Theatre is seeking to raise at least $2.5 million and possibly $3 million to renovate the 1,000-seat Washington Street venue, which opened in 1927 but has been dark since December 2007.
The group won nonprofit status last February, when it also announced it had reached a 20-year lease agreement with the property’s owner, C&V Realty Investment Trust.
“We’re optimistic that, with the support of the CPA committee, we can sell this to Town Meeting,” said John Stagnone, a former selectman who heads the group. “We believe this is the first time the public sector will be partnering with a private group on a CPA project.”
‘It’s a very meritorious project. . . . Something dramatic has to be done downtown.’
John Morton, the committee’s chairman, called the plan a worthy initiative. “It’s a very meritorious project, a strong project,” he said. “Something dramatic has to be done downtown, and the CPA should be part of the process.”
Town Meeting may also consider two other, unrelated proposals for tapping into the town’s Community Preservation Act program, which uses the proceeds from an annual property tax surcharge and state matching grants to pay for local open space, recreation, affordable housing, and historical preservation projects. The committee last week gave initial approval to spending $500,000 toward renovating the Children’s Adventure Playspace playground at Halloran Park on Pierce Street, and later this month will consider a proposal from the Stoughton Housing Authority to build senior housing.
Stoughton has $850,000 in its CPA kitty this year. The town has funded 17 projects worth $2.3 million since adopting the state program in 2008.
“All three projects before us this year are very good projects,” said Joseph Scardino, chairman of the Planning Board and the town’s Master Plan Committee, and a member of the Community Preservation Committee. Scardino supports the theater plan, he said, but Stagnone and his group will have to prove to Town Meeting that they have a viable business plan and other possible funding sources before voters would agree to award them any CPA money.
“The town and other state agencies that award grants might not look kindly on a proposal without private funding and other viable community support,” he said. “I think spending money on a good business plan is the best thing John can do.”
Stagnone has cited the Massachusetts Cultural Council as a possible source of a grant. Sponsorships or naming rights for the theater are other possible sources of income.
Scardino said it is important that the theater be financially viable. “No one project is going to bring back the downtown. Each project has to stand on its own and be self-sufficient. Every project we do has to be a success,” he said.
Saying that communities with successful downtowns often have restaurant or cultural districts, Scardino sees a revived State Theatre as having the potential to be the beginning of a cultural area for Stoughton. But he also noted that towns with successful downtown areas often have residents with more disposable income than Stoughton, and face fewer traffic issues.
Michael Barrett, chairman of the town’s Redevelopment Authority and also a member of the preservation committee, said his board is evaluating proposals and hopes to announce something soon on the redevelopment of the former MBTA train station, another piece of the downtown puzzle, but cautioned that it will take much more to turn Stoughton into a vibrant hub.
“Both the State Theatre and the MBTA station are very visible properties,” said Barrett. “But either one alone or both together won’t do it. But we have to start somewhere and create some momentum we can build on.”
Because the community preservation funds would be a matching grant, Stagnone said, his group will be beating the bushes looking for corporate and foundation sponsors, as well as arts or cultural organizations that may want to use the theater once it’s restored.
Stagnone would like the State Theatre to become a community cultural center such as Orpheum Theatre in Foxborough or the Norwood Theatre, two other former movie palaces that now offer an eclectic variety of events, including movies, theatrical productions, music, and comedy. He said the friends group hopes to partner with community organizations on the project — including building specific features into the theater in exchange for rental agreements or help in fund-raising — to make it a more viable endeavor.
Supporters say Stoughton needs it. The downtown has been hit hard in the past year, with the Shaw’s supermarket — a fixture for many — closing in August, and other retail outlets, including a Friendly’s restaurant and Honey Dew Donuts shop, also shutting down.
“We have to stem the tide of closures,” said Barrett. “We have to generate some momentum and show people a sign of reversal of direction.”
For more information on the Friends of the State Theatre, go to www.statetheatre.us.