Arts in Common aims to transform Walley School

Cultural center planned; money, future town use of building may be obstacles

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A group of local artists continues to negotiate a 10-year lease with the town that could lead to a half million dollars in grants to help create an arts and cultural center in the former Walley School on High Street.

Arts in Common, a non-profit organization focused on the arts and cultural enhancement in Bristol, aims to create a arts center in the school, with exhibition space for artists, studio space and classrooms for community art lessons, according to Arts in Common Chairman Michael Rich.

“We want to target educational classes for youth and for life-long learners,” Mr. Rich said. “There’s a real need for that type of programming in Bristol, and a real desire to bring that building back to life.”

It’s not a new concept in town. The former Reynolds and Byfield schools have new leases on life as business incubators, especially in the arts and cultural space. Organizations like the Community Strings Project and Bristol Community Theatre, as well as independent artists, photographers and ceramics studios occupy most of the space there, according to Community Development Director Diane Williamson. The concept came out of a visioning process in 2011 with Roger Williams University.

“We came out with the vision for artist space in the decommissioned schools,” Ms. Williamson said. “Classroom space and arts and culture are good uses of the buildings. It brings life to the buildings, It brings life to the Common. I think it’s a really good fit.

The first step is to make significant repairs to a building that has sat vacant for more than a decade, and that is an expensive proposition. Town Manager Steven Contente has estimated the cost to be as much as $1.5 million to make necessary repairs, including big-ticket items like asbestos abatement, a new heating system and an elevator to bring a public building into accessibility compliance.

“We need to make repairs to bring it back online and keep it from deteriorating further,” Mr. Contente said. “It depends on whether Arts in Common can pull it off. They have high hopes and high expectations. We are not in position to fund their project.”

Fortunately for Arts in Common, the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts may be in position to help fund the project. Arts in Common has applied for a $500,000 grant from the council to help fund the repairs. The application comes with strings attached. Arts in Common must raise $500,000 in matching funds and have a secure lease in place.

The Town Council in September approved the framework of a 5-year lease with a 5-year option. The group continues to negotiate with the council on the details of the lease.

“We voted to support the concept being proposed to us,” council Chairman Nathan Calouro said. “We felt like it was a good use of the property. Wallet hasn’t been used in a long time. When a building isn’t used, it atrophies.”

Mr. Calouro said there are still a lot of details to work out on the lease, including cost of repairs and maintenance.

“What was proposed to the council is that there would be no tax dollars spent,” he said. “Now, there’s dialogue about asking for money from the town to abate asbestos. That is the concern, spending taxpayer dollars for not full public use.”

Mr. Contente has similarly expressed concerns about the lease agreement, which is being debated in executive session with the council.

“The building needs to be used by the public first,” Mr. Contente said. “We need to get the best use out of it for the town.”

Whether turning the building over to Arts in Common is best for the town is up for debate. Mr. Contente said that town may want to get some of its vacant buildings back on the tax roles, or use them for town offices. He mentioned a study that had been done in 2008 suggesting one of the old school buildings could even be converted into a new Town Hall. The current seat of town government is in need of extensive repairs. The new heating, air conditioning and ventilation system slated to be done this spring is just the beginning.

“Not knowing what the future holds, we want to keep our options open. Perhaps it could be a municipal building or even a school again.” Mr. Contente said, noting that does not mean he is against a cultural center at Walley School. “We’re in a good position to improve the building, and protect it for public use — which is its purpose. It is a priority of mine to preserve Walley and keep our options open for future generations.”

Mr. Rich said as far as he’s concerned, everything is on track as far as a lease with the town goes. Arts in Common is focused on negotiating the lease details with the town and raising money through fundraisers and grant applications. The group is also working to secure tenants, including Roger Williams University, which will reportedly rent out the second floor for student and community classrooms. The group’s ability to bring money to the table and transform a neglected public building is an advantage for the town, he said.

“There hasn’t been the will or the taxpayer dollars to do this project,” said Mr. Rich, who added the group thinks it can transform the building for less than the $1.5 million estimate. “I see our role as being able to seek funding the town can’t do itself. We’re really trying to help the town.”

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