Elinor Slomba, who worked with artists, arts advocates, Mayor Nancy Rossi and state legislators in drafting a business plan for the West Haven Arts Center. Lucy Gellman Photos.
For over a year, West Haven artists have worked toward creating a permanent space in a former Masonic Temple in the heart of the city’s downtown. Now, the city is looking to see how much that same building will fetch on an open market—and leaving those artists out in the cold. Again.
That’s the latest in a years-long effort to fund a city arts center at 304 Center St. The city’s move to see how much the building will sell for came last Wednesday night at a special session of the West Haven City Council to discuss American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. At the beginning of the night, council members heard from ArtsWest CT President Elinor Slomba, who has waited months to present the group’s plan for the building. By the end of it, they had voted to re-turf a high school football field for $2.5 million and put the building out to bid.
In the middle, it was advice from contractor Ken Carney, who chairs the city’s volunteer-staffed, mayoral-appointed ARPA Committee, that pulled dollars away from the project. The owner of Baybrook Remodelers, Inc., Carney has for months argued that the arts center is not a financially sound investment for West Haven’s overall $29 million ARPA allocation.
West Haven City Council members Gary Donovan, Colleen O'Connor and Ronald M. Quagliani. Lucy Gellman Photos.
As a business owner, Carney has received close to $60,000 from the city for past projects; he was named in last year’s outside audit on the mishandling of ARPA funds. He has since asked publicly for a retraction of his name.
“This is for the community in its vision at this time,” Slomba said Wednesday, as she presented the plan with close to a dozen West Haven artists and arts supporters cheering her on. “The real estate market is pushing people into 06516 from both sides, and with it, it’s bringing people who have talent and discretionary income.
“There’s people with established careers in the arts and international reputations … what’s here for them?”
“Why Not Have It Happen Here?”
Slomba’s presentation of ArtsWest CT’s business plan to city council members, some of whom she has also taken through the Center Street property, has been over a year in the making. In 2021, she began a cultural asset mapping project for the City of West Haven, with funding from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.
One of the things she heard over and over, she said, was artists’ need for space in their own city.
“We’re artist rich, but venue poor, so there is a market need,” she said Wednesday, pointing to artists and ensembles who have West Haven addresses, but rent space elsewhere in the state out of necessity. “There are checks being written, but they’re not going into our local economy.”
Enter the former Masonic Temple at 304 Center St., where the city has been discussing putting an arts center on and off for the better part of a decade. In 2021, state legislators were able to secure $1.5 million in state bonding funds from the State of Connecticut, as part of a $4 million bonding package coming to West Haven.
Mayor Nancy Rossi with Slomba at an arts roundtable last March. Lucy Gellman File Photo.
Then in March of last year, West Haven Mayor Nancy Rossi proposed a budget allocating $3.5 million in ARPA funding to the center. That number is now closer to $1 million, Slomba said Wednesday (“I’m just gonna put it out there, because we’re not fighting for $3.5. [million],” she said. “$3.5 looks, feels, sounds like a lot, and it needs to be to scale.”).
Last year, Slomba saw excitement and momentum in the arts community, including during an ArtsWest CT roundtable last March. Then in the year of city council meetings that followed, that vision changed. At one point, Carney suggested a multipurpose community center. Last month, he pointed to schools-related funding projects, from overdue boiler repairs to re-turfing of an entire football field, as more pressing.
Wednesday, Slomba directed city council members to a business plan that ArtsWest CT drafted last year, and submitted to the city in June 2022. She was invited to present it only after city council members learned of its existence through an article in the New Haven Register last month, according to Register reporter Brian Zahn.
In its current plan, ArtsWest CT has proposed a phased buildout for the three-story, 15,000 square foot building, using only the main floor in the immediate future. Wednesday, Slomba said that floor would include a drop-in welcome center, flexible 80-seat performance and event space that artists could rent out, six 15 foot x 15 foot studio spaces, “a big wide open space for camps, classes, performances, events and rehearsals,” as well as an ADA-accessible entrance and restrooms.
“It’s tight, but we can all kind of jostle around each other and make it work,” she said.
West Haven City Council members Mitchell Gallignano and Robin Watt Hamilton. “This is a great, comprehensive plan, this is awesome,” said Gallignano, who also suggested, only half-jokingly, that it be used as a haunted house for one month of the year. “We had to have something tangible, I guess … so thank you again.”
“Not being able to finish the whole space at once could be looked at as a constraint—I know it’s not how a lot of people like to work,” she later added. “But it is how a lot of buildings do get renovated, and the future buildout of the top floor … it’s been thought about. Let me just say that.”
In ArtsWest CT’s business plan, the center’s funding would come primarily from earned revenue, including $1,000 per month from each studio (if all studios were filled, that would be $6,000 a month, or $72,000 a year), $200 per day for the event space, and $2,500 monthly sponsorships for the welcome center. Slomba added that there is currently $331,000 in the City of West Haven’s general account that could be used for maintenance of the building.
Those amounts are based on operating estimates that Carney presented, Slomba said.
Already, she added, she has built a base of supporters that includes the Milford Regional Chamber of Commerce, Madame Thalia, FUSE Theatre of CT, the West Haven Health Commission, West Haven Public Library, Arts Council of Greater New Haven, International Festival of Arts & Ideas, and individual artists and among many others. (Editor’s note: The Arts Paper is an editorially independent division of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven.)
Wednesday, she also stressed what it would mean for both artists and surrounding businesses to have a cultural and economic hub in downtown West Haven. When West Haven artists and arts organizations don’t have a space to stage their work, they book spaces in surrounding cities—and pour money into their economies instead of West Haven's (prior to Covid-19, arts and culture was a $9 billion sector in Connecticut).
Slomba pointed to downtown restaurants like Moby Dick’s and Jerri’s Luncheonette, which may receive new business if there were more artists and cultural patrons downtown. She pointed to the potential for events like WPKN’s annual vinyl sale or New Haven Comic & Collectable Spectacular, which are constantly looking for space.
“Thirty years from now—who remembers that pothole that got filled in front of their house 30 years ago?” she asked. “But you might remember bringing a kid to an event, meeting a friend for a special occasion, having a memorable day in another city, and that’s where we’re talking about building something that we can really be proud of in 30 years.”
Even as she presented the business plan, Slomba said she recognizes that there are other ways to support arts and culture in West Haven. Should the plan for an arts center not go forward—which seemed likely after Wednesday night—she urged city council members to allocate $1 million to ArtsWest CT by “parking it” with the Arts Council of Greater New Haven, which is the group’s fiscal sponsor.
“They could do a regranting fund, put that money directly to arts and culture in the 06516 zip code, [and] the city could maintain the parameters on who is eligible to access that funding,” she said. “But, I mean, let’s have a discussion about the building. Let’s open our minds, like State Representative [Dorinda] Borer said.”
“An Anchor Around Your Neck”
Ken Carney. Lucy Gellman Photo.
While several members of the city council praised Slomba for her vision—"I could really visualize your dream,” said councilwoman Colleen O’Connor, who visited the space with Slomba on Jan. 31—others expressed concern that an arts center is not a financially sound investment for the city.
“I’m personally not really focused on the asset, the building. I’m focused on the ability to establish a space for arts in the City of West Haven,” said council member Ronald M. Quagliani. “I appreciate the conceptual plan that you have but how much startup capital does your organization have?”
“Our fiscal agent has over a million [dollars] in assets, and they are the fiscal agent that would be responsible for any kind of a pass through fund,” Slomba answered. “ArtsWest CT has about ten times more than when Mr. Carney asked me that same question a few months ago.”
Quagliani pushed back. If for some reason the center did not meet its monthly earned revenue goals, he asked, would the city be on the hook? The building is currently owned by the city; ArtsWest CT’s plan includes a public-private partnership.
“If you’re talking about a cushion, that’s a goal,” Slomba said. “That would be a timeline—if we have to get through a fundraising gate, I’m open to negotiating that.”
She pointed to the base of supporters she has already built in the community, including several artists and partners who showed up to sit in the chamber and listen Wednesday night.
Council member Meli Garthwait.
“I believe you and your group have the ability to do it,” he said. “Again, this is my personal belief, but I really do think that that building is an anchor around your neck … I’m for giving the arts community ARPA dollars. I just think that we’re putting money in a structure when really we should be putting it into creativity and programming.”
He suggested giving ArtsWest CT the money instead. Slomba acknowledged that option—but said that it was also hard to think about starting from square one. She looked to New Haven’s Erector Square, where there is a six-month waiting list. Why not lure those artists to West Haven, she asked.
“I’d be interested in seeing a five-year plan,” said Meli Garthwait. “I know it’s a lot to ask for, but I’d be interested in it. Just something to think about.”
Chairman Peter Massaro said that he had appreciated the presentation, but ultimately saw the investment in the building as too risky. He worried that the Center Street space, which the city has owned since 2007, might suffer the same fate as West Haven’s beloved Casino. He added that he wants to see ARPA dollars going to the arts—he just isn’t sure of the space.
Slomba noted that other buildings don’t specifically have the same revenue generating possibility of the Masonic Temple.
From the moment he stood to speak, Carney expressed concerns with the building, from the need for a paid building supervisor to the cost of renovating all three floors and making it ADA accessible. Estimating $280 per square foot, he suggested that the overall cost of renovation would run $4.1 million alone.
He added that renovating one floor does not make sense to him: it still requires insulation, sprinklers, and electric work for the entire building.
“That leaves you 4800 square feet,” he said. “The plan that Elinor presented has some good value, but the rental doesn’t work out. Code is not gonna let you.”
“The building does not lend itself to this type of activity,” he added. “It was the wrong purpose from the beginning.”
Instead, he suggested, the council could vote on budget items that he considered more pressing. Directing the council to a proposed budget that allocated $500,000 to the arts center—or to ArtsWest CT—he pointed to needs for including boiler and playground repairs, storage sheds for police, turf and track updates to West Haven High School among others.
“There’s a lot of schools on here, a lot of things that involve children,” said Majority Leader Robbin Watt Hamilton. “I kind of want to see it prioritized.”
Ultimately, city council members voted unanimously to approve an ADA ramp at Seth G. Haley Elementary School ($100,000), a new Savin Rock playground and ground scape ($54,000), new HVAC at the Robert A Johnson Community Center ($265,000), new electrical work in city buildings ($100,000), new boilers and re-piping at May V. Carrigan Intermediate School ($2.1 million), emergency bleacher repair at Veterans Field ($60,000) and a $2.5 million update to the turf and track field at West Haven High School.
All of that funding will come out of West Haven’s overall $29 million ARPA package. 304 Center St., meanwhile, will go out to bid to see if it might have a potential buyer, and for how much. That motion, proposed by Quagliani, received a unanimous vote.
“I think in my mind, the only thing that’s missing for me to compare if it makes sense to do something with that building on Center Street or not is, what will the market bear for that,” he said. “I think I’d like it to go, hit the street, and see if there’s any interest there.”
Disappointed, Not Surprised
ArtsWest CT supporters Dabar Ratupenu , Zohra Rawling and Lara Morton.
In the hallway after the meeting, artists Zohra Rawling and Lara Morton both said they are disappointed by the decision, but had been bracing for some version of it for much of the evening. Both are working artists based in West Haven: Rawling runs Madame Thalia, a vaudeville revue, from her West Haven home and Morton is the director and co-founder of Fuse Theatre of CT.
Both have also experienced the pain of renting performance and rehearsal space outside of their city. Because “we don’t have anything here,” Rawling said it’s still easier for her to trek to Opera America in New York City, where she can rent space for $85 a day. As recently as last month, Morton found herself in New Haven for FUSE’s Songs for a New World, which the ensemble performed at Bregamos Community Theater after it could not find space in West Haven.
“I understand that safety is important, but if we’re looking for a way to develop this city, it’s going to require some vision,” she said. “We can make a difference downtown. How is it [a potential arts venue] going to revitalize downtown if it’s on the outskirts of downtown?”
She looked to Meriden’s Castle Craig Players, who have helped revitalize downtown Meriden with their 59 West Main St. storefront. If there were a space on Center Street, she said, artists would come. She’s certain of it.
“I’m kind of sad about it,” chimed in Dabar Ratupenu, who has been working with ArtsWest CT for a year now. “If people here cared about the arts as much as they care about sports, they would support it.”
Reached by phone after the meeting, Slomba said that it was not the outcome she had hoped for, but she also felt cautiously optimistic.
“It’s been a children’s storybook of conflicting excuses for why 304 Center St. can’t be a cultural space, despite the Mayor [Nancy Rossi] and council having previously committed and prioritized that use. I wish more of a good faith effort had been made to come to the table sooner to look at equitable possibilities.
“However, it looks like arts and culture in West Haven will be getting something from the ARPA fund, and I’m confident that the sector and the scene will grow stronger as a result. That’s a win.”