Mansfield shopkeepers, trying to hold residents' interest in downtown in the face of retail sprawl, had high hopes when a new arts center was proposed a couple of years ago. Hopes rose when Town Meeting approved the proposal, 181-77, in November 2006. But now it appears the project may be dead in the water.
Ann Foley-Collins, president of the Mansfield Downtown Business Association, said she, like many in town, is wondering what became of the downtown theater and arts complex proposed by the nonprofit Mansfield Music and Arts Society, known as MMAS. The Town Meeting vote authorized selectmen to sell a one- third-acre lot downtown on Shawmut Avenue, the old Fales Oil Co. site behind Jimmy's Pub, to "a nonprofit music and arts organization" for $1. Opponents expressed concern about congestion and a lack of parking downtown.
MMAS proposed, and is raising funds to build, a state-of-the-art, multipurpose structure with an art gallery, a theater-function room, parking (possibly underground), and 16 rental units for artists, which would help defray costs. MMAS has run the Black BoxTtheater, offering shows and children's cultural programs, for 15 years, the last six at a small venue on Crocker Street across from the train station.
"I don't know what the holdup is. I don't think the leaders are paying attention," said Foley-Collins, who said shop owners agree the center would be a huge draw for families. The wrinkle appears to be selectmen's concerns about how to structure the sale of the building to MMAS. Figuring out a way to sell the lot, on which $150,000 in back taxes is owed, and then assuring it would return to town ownership if the theater project fails, has stumped selectmen.
"There's disagreement on the board," said Louis P. Amoruso, chairman of the selectmen, and it centers on the wording of an appropriate reversion clause.
"None of us was sufficiently interested in compromise," said Amoruso, who is not running for reelection to the five-member board. With two members to be replaced in May's election, however, perhaps a new board can reach an agreement, he said.
The downtown was so bustling in 2005, Foley-Collins recalled, it helped earn the town a score of 89th in Money magazine's 100 best places to live. But these days, she said, "we feel like we're the ignored stepchild."
There weren't any holiday lights downtown last year, she said, and her customers complained. Some 15 businesses have come and gone from downtown in the past year or so, according to Foley-Collins, co-owner of Glee Gifts, whose storefront brightens North Main Street with colorful, locally crafted wares. She said town officials seem more focused on boosting the new Mansfield Crossing mall, on Route 140, and the industrial park than supporting downtown.
"I don't see that at all," said Town Manager John D'Agostino, who noted that several state and federal grants have recently been secured for downtown improvements.
"I'm sure they feel that way because of the economy," he said of the business owners, "but I think the town has acted to the contrary with time and effort."
There have been no holiday lights for a couple of years, he said, because telephone poles and wiring have been put underground to neaten the area.
Supporters of the new arts complex say it would only help the downtown. "The land hasn't brought a dime of income for 20 years," Ken Butler, MMAS executive director and founder, said of the Fales site. "We'd bring discretionary income and foot traffic to downtown."
Arts center supporters who have inquired have received no response about progress on the land sale from town officials, according to Butler, who added that his group is prepared to cover back taxes on the site.
It would be a "marvelous anchor for downtown, with classes, theater productions, and exhibit space," said Kristi Johnston, owner of Artworks at 263 N. Main Street. "Everyone feels the same need for a positive influence."
Dave Coccia, MMAS president, said that not knowing if the project is going ahead makes fund-raising difficult, but that "a lot of people are committed to donate." The group is looking to raise $5 million.
Expressing concern about "why the town hasn't done its part" in moving the project along, Coccia said, "As a taxpayer, I wonder if other articles come through Town Meeting that haven't been followed up on, if it's symptomatic of other problems."
D'Agostino said he supports the project. "It would introduce vitality to the downtown." But, he added, "There's the public benefit and what is owed to the taxpayers." He estimated the Fales site's market value is $450,000. Said George Pantos, owner of Jimmy's Pub, "It would be a focal point, a tremendous boon to the center."
Patty Morin Fitzgerald can be reached at: email@example.com