Court Street needs another look

Nearly 25 years ago, the city bought the Arts and Science building at 14 Court St. for about $650,000, in part for the culture and in part for the parking lot next to the public library. An experienced arts director was hired, exciting plans were made … until reality set in. The building and its two theatres incurred extensive repairs, proceeds from shows and rentals fell short, soon the director was terminated and the building became a white elephant.

Now, we are voting on a proposed Performing Arts Center placed on the second floor of the former Alec’s Shoes building on Main Street, with a gallery on the street floor.

Let’s take a look at the facts:

1. The cost to the taxpayers for the building and start-up costs is $15.5 million, financed with a municipal bond. To repay this loan costs the taxpayers $1.1 million annually for the next 20 years.

2. The bond cannot be obligated for construction until $4 million in private donations for an endowment fund are collected to cover operating expenses. If this $4 million is not raised within two years from go-ahead, the project must be terminated.

3. The Alec’s Shoe building is retained with $36,000 for six months to cover the owner’s expenses. Purchase and continued maintenance of the building, plus preliminary design work in preparation for construction, may be covered with the $15.5 million bond. Except for reselling the building, none of these costs are recovered should the $4 million in private donations not be raised within two years

4. Total costs for construction and equipment prepared by the consultants (Jan. 4, 2017, report for theatre equipment; Jan. 11, 2017, report for construction) was arbitrarily reduced by the city’s director of economic development by $5.4 million, based on his list of “potential funding opportunities” (July 2017 letter).

5. Items excluded from the consultant estimates, such as hazardous waste removal and construction contingency, were ignored in coming up with the $15.5 million figure.

6. The operating expenses, including payroll for a full-time director plus a staff of 10, is estimated at $1 million per year, while the operating income is estimated at $750,000 from ticket sales, fees, rental and food service. The annual operating deficit of $250,000 must be made up from an estimated $150,000 income from the $4 million endowment fund plus another anticipated $100,000 in donations.

7. A constant operating deficit is what doomed Nashua’s Arts and Science Center and plagues most performance centers. In fact, of four performing arts centers in the New England area of the size being proposed for the PAC, three showed an annual operating deficit ranging from $50,000 to $900,000. The fourth, showing a profit, contains a “party room.”

8. Since the proposed PAC is owned by the city of Nashua, any deficits will need to be made up by the taxpayers.

9. The PAC is built for a configurable audience of 1,000 standing, or 550 tables/chairs, or 500 tiered seating, packed into a second story 7,142 square-foot room, including a 800 square-foot stage area. The proposed layout shows only two exits, both on the same side of the room, and no center aisle. A recipe for a death trap in case of a fire.

10. The construction costs for the PAC are very expensive, because 57,000 total Square-feet of the building’s five floor levels must be extensively renovated to achieve the performance area on the second floor.

11. The city’s consultants also presented two options to renovate 14 Court St., each priced $2.5 million and $7.2 million below the renovation of the Alec’s building (Jan. 11, 2017, report).

12. The major part of the $51,500 consultant study was financed from the city’s Downtown Improvement Expendable Trust Fund. The city consultants were soon promoting the Alec’s building over other options, including 14 Court St., the Keefe Auditorium and a new building on Spring Street; a practice known as “steering.”

13. The economic impact for downtown merchants, following completion of construction is estimated by the consultant at about $1.4 million in additional sales, creating nine new jobs and $310,000 in earnings (May 2, 2017, report). Frankly, if downtown merchants are that desperate for additional income, they would be better served by sharing the annual $1.1 million for the bond payments in cash.

In conclusion, the 14 Court St. building needs to be revisited for renovation of its two theatres, priced well below the Alec’s building renovation, and with plenty of convenient parking and outdoor space. Let the Nashua citizens continue to benefit from collecting Alec’s property taxes, currently at $50,000 per year.

Fred S. Teeboom is a former Board of Alermen member.