Norwich Arts Center faces closure without financial help

Norwich - The financially struggling Norwich Arts Center could close as early as May 1 if it fails to receive a sudden influx of funding, possibly including help from the city.

The city hasn't given the arts center aid for three years.

Arts Center President Peter Leibert told the board of directors on Monday that he sees no way to keep the doors open at 60-64 Broadway with monthly bills that exceed revenues by $3,600.

He cited lack of public support for shows at the Donald Oat Theater and the art galleries as well as the elimination of city funding for the 24-year-old downtown organization.

"We just don't have the support of the community," Leibert said.

For one recent show, "Cool Cat Jazz," the center sold four tickets. Leibert said he handed out tickets to try to drum up interest. "They took the tickets, but they didn't show up." The center sold 20 tickets for the most recent show.

Fiddler Damon Leibert, Peter's son, will perform March 4 in a show that has been selling well and could be a sellout. But Friday morning, the older Leibert realized that the phone system and computer connection were down, meaning that anyone calling or trying to order tickets online couldn't get through.

Leibert met Thursday with Mayor Peter Nystrom to explain the financial crisis, and on Friday he forwarded budget information to City Manager Alan Bergren, who is compiling his proposed 2011-12 city budget. NAC used to receive $40,000 per year in the city budget, but all arts funding for outside groups stopped three years ago.

"If we got $50,000 to sustain us, with probably a lesser amount of funding each year, we could probably make it," Leibert said. "We've got a good volunteer base, and if we had the feeling we were being supported, it would help a lot."

Leibert argued that arts in downtown Norwich are essential to the planned economic revival of the city center. He countered an argument that the city shouldn't fund the arts during difficult budget times.

"The arts are really what makes economic development possible to a large extent," he said. "I'm a firm believer if you've got the arts in place, you've got the foundation for economic development. Norwich is a very odd place. People can say, 'You shouldn't expect the city to give you money,' but I say, 'Yes they should, because we're giving the city something.'"

Leibert said the loss of steady support to pay a part-time director started the slide. Without someone to consistently market the center and write grant applications, the volunteer board members do everything from scheduling to cleaning the toilets.

The board has applied for grants, but they cover programming, not utilities.

The center has six tenants and receives some income from art gallery sales. Combined, those revenues total about $2,000. Monthly operating expenses, including two mortgage payments, are about $5,800.

He estimated the center has enough money to pay bills until about May 1. "We'll default if we don't get the money."

Leibert plans to contact mortgage-holders Dime Bank and Bank of America to see if something can be arranged. Dime has refinanced the center in the past.

Nystrom said he could not promise city money to the arts center, although he said he understands its needs. Nystrom has proposed moving the post office - which plans to leave downtown - into the building to attract income and foot traffic.

Nystrom also pointed to other sources of funding, including the Sachem Fund, which the city and the Mohegan Tribe created in part to fund arts. In the recession, however, the city and tribal governments have both drastically cut allocations to the fund, which now has $171,231.

Alderman William Nash, committee chairman of the Sachem Fund, said he will call a meeting in March to decide whether to seek new applications or delay any spending until the economy improves and the fund grows. Next year's city and tribal allocations also are in question.

"I can't see committing money to this fund when we are facing a very, very difficult budget year," Nash said.

The arts center started renting the building in 1987, buying it in 1995 for $106,000. It received a state grant for $240,000 for renovations and a $50,000 naming grant from the Oat family for the theater.

Under David Cruthers, its former director, the then-Norwich Arts Council hosted street festivals, sponsored outdoor concerts and once brought a traveling arts train to Norwich. But after Cruthers left, the center worked with part-time directors, which ended when the city cut funding.

"That's when we really started to erode," Leibert said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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