Garde school would enliven the region's downtown

An artist's rendering the New London Magnet School for Visual and Performing Arts.
An artist's rendering the New London Magnet School for Visual and Performing Arts.

On a tour this week of the rambling holdings of the Garde Arts Center, a full block, Executive Director Steve Sigel noted that plans for the New London Magnet School for Visual and Performing Arts will help cement the notion of the city's downtown as the region's downtown.

I like this description of the $31 million collaboration plan, which just got a big valuable green light from the General Assembly.

The Garde has long been engaged in culturally illuminating a regional downtown, creating an arts hub that caters not to just residents of the city but of surrounding towns.

It's a joint effort, because not only does the region benefit from having a central arts center, but the center needs more people than city residents to fill its 1,400 seats.

A new arts magnet high school, part of a transformation to an all magnet school system in New London, will also rely on students from beyond city boundaries.

And when they and their teachers and parents come to school, they will be enriching and enlivening the region's downtown, making it even more diverse. What a great urban age mixing, too, with a large apartment building with a lot of elderly right next door.

This is the way cities work best.

The arts school will fill a lot of space in two major buildings along Meridian Street. The buildings, owned by the Garde and connected to the theater are well maintained, mothballed really, but vacant, part of a vast inventory of unoccupied downtown buildings.

A new theater would be built at the corner of Gov. Winthrop Boulevard and Meridian Street. An expansion of the backstage area of the main Garde building would involve erecting a building addition into some of the travel lanes of Gov. Winthrop Boulevard, narrowing the roadway.

The price tag for the work to combine the new high school with the arts center comes from a detailed cost analysis commissioned and paid for by the Garde.

I have heard some rumbling of criticism since the $31 million collaboration plan was unveiled, but I haven't heard any reasonable arguments against it.

For those who complain about the money, I would suggest you have to also complain about the many millions of state dollars that flow into school building projects in suburban towns, communities with smaller populations.

The renovation of the existing Garde buildings actually comes out as kind of a bargain. Waterford, with generous state assistance, just finished, for instance, a $58 million rebuild of its high school. I didn't hear any rumblings about that.

Indeed the bill that included $31 million for New London authorizes $325 million for school projects around the state.

When you compare the costs of building a new high school from scratch, $30 million is indeed a bargain. Renovating existing schools and building new ones is not cheap.

For those who criticize the arts magnet school concept, try to expand your thinking about high school education. Remember, this is not a vocational technical high school. Students will get a broad education with a focus on all of the arts, performing, visual and literary. They are not just being trained to become stagehands or dancers.

This is new thinking about education and it is a groundbreaking project that will be watched closely by educators. And it will happen in New London.

Even if you are not convinced of the benefits that New London can achieve by becoming the hub of an innovative regional education system, focus on the fact that the state will invest $30 million into a struggling disadvantaged city.

If you don't like this, make sure and complain about the many millions of dollars the state creates in bonding for infrastructure improvements and investments in many other regions.

My own favorite waste of state money is the $22 million transportation center in Norwich, which didn't create much in the way of permanent jobs, doesn't entertain or teach anyone and doesn't really link any transportation. Some buses stop there.

As a New London advocate, I am happy to see a $31 million state investment in a successful but struggling regional arts center and innovative education investment for the region. I can look away from the fact that it is also likely an election-year trinket, flashing some gold at voters.

There is little doubt that the Garde, the product of much local generosity, has enormously benefited the city and region, keeping the marquee lit even with crushing competition from two major casinos. A recent campaign to raise $300,000 to $400,000 for a new digital movie sound system for the history-laden theater ended up raising more than a half million dollars.

The magnet school collaboration will help the Garde complete some worthy projects that have been on the drawing board for a long time, including building the new theater, now planned to have 200 seats, and improving the backstage area of the main theater to be able to host a wider range of productions.

The new enhanced theater center will be able to host more regional arts events and theatrical productions, including some by other arts organizations in the region.

The ripple effect, from new businesses, should be noticeable.

This will be good for municipalities around New London, too. A strong New London, a vital and interesting place to visit, makes surrounding towns more appealing. There will be a big regional payback from this state investment.

If the fundraising for a new National Coast Guard Museum for New London is successful and that moves forward, close to $100 million in exciting new projects could begin unfolding in New London.

The two developments could certainly complement one another to make the downtown, the region's downtown, as the Garde's Steve Sigel would have it, that much more vibrant.

This is the opinion of David Collins

d.collins@theday.com

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