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Major Mystic development should save theater

Last February, I learned of the development plan for the former Mystic Education Center. Once I grasped the incredible opportunity that this project presented for the economic development of Groton, I reached out to the developer, Respler Homes, to see if they might reserve space for a performing arts space. They invited me to tour the property, and to my amazement, they revealed a little known 322-seat auditorium/theater and mentioned that they would be delighted to keep and renovate the auditorium, but the ultimate decision would rest with the Town of Groton. A subsequent tour, to be co-hosted by Wendy Burry of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition was scheduled for March 24, but then COVID-19 happened.

Groton’s Parks and Recreation Deptartment was tasked with determining the best use for the Pratt Building on the property that also houses a pool and gymnasium. They contracted with Green Ways to conduct a “statistically significant” survey. Based on the results, they hired Pirie Design to create a plan based on their interpretation of those results, which were presented to the Groton Town Council Jan. 5.

Prior to this presentation, I had the opportunity to make a Citizen’s Petition to the Council, and I was joined by three other residents – all four of us represent performing arts organizations (I am co-founder and the president of CT Lyric Opera) − and we all expressed the great desire to have the theater saved and renovated to serve as a home to a vibrant new arts center. Once we concluded our remarks, the majority of the councilors expressed their support for preserving the theater, with a general consensus that more needs to be done to promote the arts in Groton.

The next portion of the meeting was devoted to the presentation of the proposed Pratt Building renovations, and after a nice recap of the Green Ways survey, the design was revealed. I was extremely disappointed to learn that they eliminated the theater and replaced it with several “flex spaces,” staff office and storage space. Even before the presentation was over, it became clear that the majority of the councilors were displeased that the theater was being scrapped, and that the project had gotten so far without informing the council of this major design change. By the end of the meeting, the council had directed Parks and Rec to find out what it would take to get an additional design that included the renovated theater.

The council also received clarification from town staff that Respler Homes is the party that will be paying for the renovations, with an agreement on Tax Incremental Financing yet to be finalized.

Unbelievably, this unique 322-seat theater that features a 1,623-square-foot stage and balcony was being eliminated without any consideration of the potential benefits that a renovated theater could provide, including:

• Economic development. The arts contribute $168 million to the economy of New London County, support 4,500 jobs, provide $10.5 million in revenue to local and state governments, and account for 3.2 million visitors per year. Also, 66% of arts attendees are local and many arts attendees frequent local restaurants and other businesses before and/or after events. These significant statistics were provided by the cultural coalition.

• A potential source of revenue. Fees from organizations that use the space could be collected to cover the costs of power, heating/cooling and security, and a small surcharge on tickets for events could accumulate a considerable amount of money on an annual basis, potentially providing money for other programming at the Pratt Building or across Groton.

• An opportunity to develop the arts scene in Groton. Several councilors expressed the need for Parks and Rec to enhance arts offerings, as well as boost what is now a dearth of arts opportunities in Groton, compared to the neighboring communities of New London, Westerly and Norwich. This theater would go a long way toward providing a focal point for an arts community here.

• An attraction for Mystic River Bluffs. This new development will eventually house 2,000-3,000 residents, and a vibrant arts scene on the property would be an additional attraction to lure the young professionals that the expansion of Electric Boat and other businesses are attracting to the area.

I created an online petition (https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/save-the-mystic-education-center-theatre) whose sole purpose is to demonstrate to the Town Council that there is a great desire among the residents of Groton and surrounding towns to save this theater, renovate it, and have it be the home for an expanded arts community that we so desperately need. Please join me and the many area residents who have already expressed their support to ensure that this incredible opportunity to promote the arts in Groton does not slip through our fingers.

John M. Waller lives in Mystic.

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