Rockport breathes sigh of relief for performance center

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / June 1, 2008

With a legal challenge settled, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival is moving forward with a project that will affect not just the arts but the local economy as well.

Construction for the $17.5 million Shalin Liu Performance Center, a 325-seat venue offering first-rate acoustics and a wall-size window overlooking Sandy Bay, is expected to begin in October and be completed in time for the music festival's 2010 season.

"Our whole committee thinks this is a terrific opportunity for the entire town, and is going to provide a new reason for people to come to Rockport," said Peter Beacham, chairman of the town's Economic Development Committee. He noted that because it will operate year-round, it may stimulate activity in months that are traditionally slow for the town's innkeepers, restaurants, and retail shops.

"Rockport's always been a summer destination," he said. "This will make it a year-round destination."

In fall 2007, just before the demolition of a Main Street building that would signal the start of construction, an abutter's lawsuit stalled the project. Gary and Marcia Puryear of Concord, who own a residential property next to the proposed performance center site, contended that it was too large a building on too small a lot.

The case was settled after the festival agreed to purchase the home for $1.2 million. The agreement was reached just before a festival-sponsored article to create a cultural overlay district was to be brought forward at the April 5 Town Meeting.

The way people feel about the project may be best reflected by two things.

First, Beacham said, came the sustained applause from residents at Town Meeting when it was announced that the case had been settled and the potentially controversial zoning article was not going to be heard. Second has been renewed interest from donors, who in the past few weeks have come forward to pledge approximately $800,000.

"There has been a little boost," said Thomas Burger, chairman of the board of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. "Recently we received a $750,000 challenge grant from an anonymous donor to match donations from new donors dollar for dollar. [Last] week we picked up $50,000 from another anonymous donor, a local individual on Cape Ann who had been watching the project and saw we were back up and running, and came forward."

The facility is being designed by two men who have collaborated on music venues for 17 years, including having a role in the design of the Seiji Ozawa Hall at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox. Alan Joslin of Epstein Joslin Architects of Cambridge is principal-in-charge of the design of the building. R. Lawrence Kirkegaard of Chicago, an internationally known acoustician for concert hall and performance spaces, oversees the acoustic design.

Burger noted that having a full-time home will help the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, which has already established itself as a top draw for world-class musicians, more fully develop its artistic programs and potential. But it will also serve as a performance space for other forms of music - from Metropolitan Opera simulcasts to concerts by performers in other genres. There will also be an expanded educational component for students at area schools, and function and reception space for businesses and other uses.

Completion of the project will require approximately $6 to 8 million more in donations (the organization has raised about $12 million). When it is completed, the impact is expected to go beyond the walls of the center itself.

At an April meeting of the Rockport Chamber of Commerce, Anita Walker of the Massachusetts Cultural Council talked about the importance of the creative economy, noted Peter Webber, chamber manager.

"Rockport is already well-positioned, with its history and exterior settings, and connection with artists and the creative arts," Webber said. "To have this new performance center will really strengthen Rockport's position as a year-round cultural destination."

Simply put, people who attend events at the center are likely to eat at nearby restaurants and browse in galleries and shops, and some might stay the night in local bed and breakfasts or inns.

"Restaurants, inns and stores - all of those places are going to find there's a need to be open longer [during the year] than they have in the past," Beacham said.

"We're not going to have a three- or four-month season, but have it open all year long. They're talking about doing all kinds of things - jazz, folk, you name it. There are going to be a lot of opportunities to bring all kinds of things in."

Burger said that the festival was able to purchase the Puryear property because of a no-interest loan from an unnamed benefactor.

Although it is a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization, he said, the festival intends to pay real-estate taxes on the house at 39R Main St. and will sell the property after the performance center opens.

The festival will continue to hold performances at the Rockport Art Association until the new center is ready.

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