Minerva Arts Center Ready for Williamstown Panel's Questions

By Stephen DravisWilliamstown Correspondent
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A Ballet Manchester children's production of 'The Nutcracker' at the former home of the Minerva Arts Center in 2011. MAC is asking the for CPA funding to turn the former Agway into a theater center.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Kathleen O'Mara is glad she is not the one who will be speaking to the town's Community Preservation Committee on Tuesday night.
She is glad because she likes to put other faces on the Minerva Arts Center project that is seeking $175,000 in Community Preservation Act funds.
She is really glad because this week she is teaching a theater class in Southern California instead of shoveling out her driveway in the Berkshires.
O'Mara said last week that her experience with the panel at its Jan. 21 meeting was productive, and her group is well prepared to face follow-up questions Tuesday evening at Town Hall.
"I felt that it was a very fair and receptive response," O'Mara said. "I felt there was interest, exploratory interest. There are, I'm sure, more questions to be answered, and I was asked to provide supporting material for the meeting this coming Tuesday.
"The things they were requested were certainly within the scope of what they need to have to make these decisions."
O'Mara told the CPC in January that the Minerva Arts Center has three main objectives for the property her group seeks to acquire on Main Street: beautification of the site of the former Agway, preservation of green space for MAC students and visitors, and economic development.
The $175,000 O'Mara is seeking would be devoted toward land upgrades. The Minerva Arts Center, a 501(c)3 non-profit of which O'Mara is artistic director, plans to finance acquisition of the land and pay for building upgrades through a combination of loans and fund-raising. The total project is estimated at $1.5 million.
The MAC hopes to create rehearsal and performance space for community theater groups, a venue for arts education, additional rehearsal space for Actor's Equity productions (like the Williamstown Theatre Festival) and a parklike setting that enhances the MAC's education mission while providing access to the nearby Hoosic River. 
At the first CPC meeting of the year, applicants typically explain their projects while the committee members ask only for clarifications — not substantive questions about the merits of projects. But at the Jan. 22 meeting, CPC members indicated to O'Mara they would be seeking information about the need for a new arts center in town and its long-term viability.
Last week, she said the MAC group would be prepared to answer those queries.
"We're in good shape to present to the best of our ability and our knowledge," she said. "The business plan has been completed, of course, for bank meetings and other grant leads we're following.
"We have a lot of data gathered. But we didn't expect to have to have it for (Jan. 22). The data is there."
O'Mara said MAC Executive Director Edward Cating on Tuesday will present testimonials from the local theater community documenting the need for a new home for the center, which operated in the former Our lady of the Incarnation Church on Massachusetts Avenue in North Adams until 2012.
O'Mara started Minerva Stage in 1996. It grew into the Minerva Arts Center, which was incorporated in 2010.
MAC has been operating a secondhand store to raise funds.
Currently, the MAC offers theater classes at Williamstown's First Congregational Church. It also operates a fund-raising secondhand store, MAC Treasures, in the former Agway through an arrangement with the building's owner, Northern Pines Realty Trust. The trust is a family affair; her grandfather, Thomas M. McMahon Jr., had owned the property.
"We're fortunate to have a relationship with the First  Congregational Church, and I imagine it would continue even with the buildout [at the former Agway site], but the reality is we're limited in our offerings by the church's availability," O'Mara said. "We can't impose on Sunday church services, for example.
"The space is awesome, but it is limited in access."
MAC has been able to keep its youth programming alive, but it has had to drop its adult community theater options since leaving North Adams.
"In 2011, when we were on Mass Ave., in 12 months we produced 14 shows," she said. "It was a mix of adult and youth performances, five concerts and full summer programming with all the workshops for 10 weeks.
"What we'd like to do is be able to build back that level of opportunity to engage in arts education and arts programming."
And MAC hopes to both serve and derive revenue from other theater groups by making rehearsal space available.
"We intend to build the theater space according to Equity rules and regulations," O'Mara said. "There are a couple of things we'll have in that buildout so we can invite Equity touring groups and Equity actors/directors to come use the space.
"In the big picture, our marketing efforts and outreach efforts will encourage touring companies to consider Northern Berkshire County as a space to load in and do their shows. This is down the road a little bit."
O'Mara noted that outside of the area's two colleges and museums, there is little space available for either rental or community groups.
"It's amazing there isn't a community center of sorts already," she said. "If we think about how many stages there are in the North Adams and Williamstown communities and even going up to Bennington, it's limited."

Tags: community theater,   CPA,   

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