West Haven could turn a long-planned arts center into a community space

The city has racked up nearly $2 million in revenue — including $1.5 million in state bonding for an arts center at 304 Center St., the site of a former Masonic lodge — to begin the second construction stage. However, as the city council considered allocating $3.5 million of its U.S. federal bailout funding to advance construction, ARPA committee chairman Ken Carney said he believed that a community center would be more appropriate.

“The importance of a community center is that the community has a place to go, free of charge, to use the space,” he told city council earlier this month. “The building is nearly 15,000 square feet. It can be everything.

Carney said the former Anna V. Molloy School and City Hall’s four conference centers account for all of the public meeting space available in the city, while neighboring towns have several buildings dedicated to those purposes.

Additionally, he said he believes the building should house a permanent tenant responsible for maintaining the building, warning that the city had invested millions of dollars in the construction of the Savin Rock Conference Center, which has gradually fallen in ruins before now being observed as the future site of the New England Brewing Co.

“You have to wonder where the funding is coming from and who is doing it,” Carney advised the board.

Councilor Steven Johnstone, R-10, noted his reluctance to approve funding for a community center without public input, when all talk of the building’s future thus far has been for an arts center.

Carney said he thinks the center could be dedicated to the arts while serving a larger purpose.

Councilman Meli Garthwait, R-2, said she heard from constituents skeptical about funding for an arts center when they encountered potholes in the city. She said she would like to see a business plan or “some kind of proof” of the economic viability of a planned arts centre.

Councilwoman Bridgette Hoskie, D-1, said while she favors developing the property, investing $3.5 million in a project is “a gamble.” Carney said he thought it was a more compelling case for expanding the building’s use to the wider community.

Council Chairman Peter Massaro, D-6, said he thought it would be important to preserve the project’s original intent to strongly integrate an arts center into West Haven. He said townspeople have to go elsewhere if they want to see a show, and most of the town’s economic development has been limited to restaurants.

“We have to bring something here for the people of West Haven,” he said.

The board voted to earmark $3.5 million in federal funding for the project instead of earmarking it for the project, pending the ARPA committee’s submission of a business plan as evidence of the center’s financial viability.

At a council meeting on Monday, some members of the public argued in favor of the arts center project, with a focus on the arts. Some members of the public noted the equally large contingent of residents advocating for more street paving at Monday’s meeting, asking whether an arts center was the best use of funds for the city.

Andy Weinstein, co-owner of Star Tires Plus Wheels, said he thinks it’s “a bad time” for an arts center.

“We don’t have the money to fund it, we don’t have the money to maintain it,” he said. Weinstein said he thinks the city could open up its high school auditorium for such purposes.

Resident Rich Deso said $3.5 million is “a lot of money we’re going to take a hit on” if the council doesn’t see a business plan. He said he stopped while driving recently after hitting the rim of his tire so hard he thought it had twisted. Former city councilor Aaron Charney said that if the city council can’t receive a compelling business plan, the roads deserve attention.

‘If you build it, they will come’

Still, arts advocates said an arts center would improve economic development, public safety, and morale in the city.

Elinor Slomba, a longtime community advocate for arts center development, said years of advocacy, lobbying and fundraising should lead to the development of an arts center — even if it requires the council to allocate $3.5 million in pandemic recovery funding to do just that.

“This is not a new project. It’s an old project that’s there. The cost of nothing has to be considered; there is a cost to doing nothing,” she said.

Slomba also said the best way to fill potholes is for the city to generate revenue through downtown revitalization. If people have a reason to come downtown, they are more likely to dine downtown as well, which drives economic development and increases the city’s tax base.

“What fills in the potholes is more businesses staying in business,” she said.

Resident Elvin Melendez, who remains involved in the music industry, said he credits an arts education for keeping him away from the streets growing up in the Bronx.

“Living in the South Bronx wasn’t easy. Living in social housing isn’t easy and some of us have had to use government programs to be able to navigate life and I’m not ashamed of that and I’m very proud of my mother for what she had to do for his children,” he said.

Resident Nathan Rawling said the arts benefit both adults and children.

“I love music, theater and dancing, and I like doing those things even though I’m not good at them. It’s not just about children,” he said.

Rawling said he was “tired” of going to New Haven, Guilford and Milford to do anything arts-related, especially as there are long wait times to get space for studio in New Haven.

Kim-Marie Mullin, who is challenging Democratic State Sen. James Maroney in the 14th District, told the council she was “a big fan of the arts” and “if you build it, they will come.”

However, she said, West Haven is “not ready” for people to visit its downtown area without investing in other projects first.

“For some reason, it’s not consistent. It doesn’t go together,” she said, mocking the “garbage,” “beggars” and dilapidated buildings of the stalled The Haven project on First Avenue.

Mayor Nancy Rossi, who suggested the $3.5 million investment in the arts center in the ARPA plan she presented to city council, said she remains in favor of an arts center but is ‘not opposed’ to the council organizing a management group to maintain the building. Rossi said she “doesn’t get involved in the intricacies of ARPA” now that the ARPA committee handles board-approved projects, but she thinks an arts center is “a starting point” for downtown revitalization.

“I believe the arts center would be a project that would get things started here,” she said. “I think if they have events, you’ll see people downtown. You will see people wanting to come here and go somewhere else (downtown) as well.

State Rep. Dorinda Borer, D-West Haven, chair of the House Liaison General Subcommittee, said she would like to review the language to ensure the center could be expanded for use at purposes other than the arts, but she thinks it’s important for the building to be used, even if it’s a multi-purpose community facility.

“It could be an arts, culture and community center,” she said. “As long as it’s about arts, culture and community, I think it can serve as a multi-purpose center. It does, however, need an economic driver: that was one of the selling points of the subsidy.


William E. Bennett