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Nashua Residents Rally Together to Make Performing Arts Center a Reality

Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Nashua residents Michael Watt (left) and Connor Coburn (right) hit the streets to get support for a performing arts center downtown.

Nashua aldermen recently rejected a plan to bring a performing arts center to the downtown. But Tuesday, voters will get a chance to weigh in.

And over the past few weeks, advocates for the center have been working long hours to make sure it gets the support it needs.

[Audio will be uploaded soon.]

David West is a Nashua native. He’s 65 and for the past five decades he’s played guitar for the local rock band "Aces and Eights."

They’ve played all over but never in Nashua.

“We played in the surrounding communities of Brookline and Amherst and Milford and all these places but even since that day there’s been very musical facilities in Nashua," West said. "It’s very sad to hear that even 50 years into this journey we are still fighting that fight.”

Connor Coburn is 23 and is the drummer in the alternative rock band "Hunter." He tours with the band. But if he wants to play in his hometown of Nashua– they have to cram into the back of local bars.

“As much as I love Fody’s and Peddlers and all these places they are not venues," Coburn said. "They are places that people want to go and get drunk and listen to cover bands, but it’s not really what we are trying to accomplish as a band.”

Credit Courtesy of Nashua Officials
A picture of the proposed performing arts center for downtown at the former Alec's Shoes store.

That’s why Coburn has been hitting the streets for the past few weeks to get the backing of building a performing arts center at the former Alec's Shoes store on Main Street.

He and a couple dozen residents and business owners have raised a few thousand dollars. They’ve put up yard signs around town, sent our mailers, and have their own Facebook page.

Holding a big blue sign reading: “Arts Mean Business for Nashua – Vote Yes” Coburn and some others were out early the Saturday before Halloween to do some door knocking. Including chair of the group Michael Watt.

On a side street off the main drag, Coburn approached longtime resident Morgen Selmer sitting on his porch listening to music with his dogs. 

At first Selmer was against the proposal but by the end of the conversation Selmer had a little more to consider.

So if there was more private funding that was involved with it?" Watt asked.

"Yes, it should definitely be a private enterprise," Selmer replied.

"You know that the first $4 million has to be private?" Watt answered.

"I didn’t know that, good to know," said Selmer.

Watt says this conversation is common. Most voters, he says, don’t fully understand how the project is being funded.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
David West, longtime musician and native, and Michael Watt, who chairs the advocacy group, gather last Saturday to help get support for a performing arts center downtown.

To break down the numbers, the city would take out a $15.5 million bond. But only if the project is able to raise $4 million upfront in private donations.

The city’s Economic Director Tim Cummings says financially, investing in a performing arts center makes sense.

“Main Street has changed, it’s not going to be what it was in the 60s," Cummings said. "Sears is never going to come back to your Main Street, so understanding that you need to accommodate for your Main Street differently and to do it through culture and do it through arts is a very smart strategy."

"Communities who have embraced this strategy has seen positive economic impact and rising tides lifts all boats," he said.

Cummings says the city has a good bond rating. It’s paying off its debt each year. And if the center does get the OK – it will pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the downtown.

The proposal went before the board of aldermen in September but fell flat of the needed two-thirds majority - by 2 votes, and even after a strong pitch by Mayor Jim Donchess and hours of public testimony by supporters.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
Despite hours of public testimony in support, Nashua aldermen rejected the arts center proposal in September.

One of the naysayers, Alderman Mark Cookson, says the plan didn’t have enough private funding.

“If we get the private piece to come in and contribute I think you are going to see a lot of support from the members of the board of aldermen but you have to have more skin in the game and not just put it on the backs of our taxpayers," Cookson said.

Besides finances, Watt says, the other concern he’s hearing from voters is what the center is for.

“A lot of them just think it’s the performing arts center but it is going to be a multi-use facility as well," Watt said. "People think it’s just going to be used a couple days of week but it’s going to be used all the time.”

Watt says besides hosting concerts and performances at the roughly 600-seat theater, the center could be used for conferences, candidate forums and even weddings.

Credit Paige Sutherland/NHPR
The building where the performing arts center would be if the city ends up moving forward with the proposal.

Thirty-six-year-old Jessica dePontbriand grew up in Nashua and owns the cafe Jaja Belles on Main Street. She says she opened up shop here based on a Master Plan from 2000.  That plan called for more investments in entertainment and culture, including building a performing arts center.

dePontbriand says it’s been 17 years – this art center is long overdue.

“It just brings life and vitality to a city," she said. "We have so many people that visit us from different towns and you need something for them to keep coming back to.”

Advocates are hoping for a big show of support at the polls on Tuesday but even if the center gets a strong backing – the referendum is non-binding. It’s only really to show lawmakers where the community stands. But agreeing to pay for it – is still up to the city.

A sample ballot for Tuesday's election in Nashua - Advocates say the art center's referendum, on page two, is complicated and lengthy. They worry voters will either skip it or vote 'no' out of confusion.

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