After 40 years of entertaining and educating audiences from the South Coast and beyond, the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center is preparing for its second act.
A $31 million capital improvement project designed by Wilson Butler Architects of Boston is planned to enhance the patron experience and the theater’s production capabilities, create new entertainment and education spaces, and boost curbside appeal of the century-old theater.
The project timeline calls for the Zeiterion to be shuttered in September 2023 so that the massive overhaul can be completed in 12 to 16 months. Meanwhile, a slimmed-down Z schedule, as well as performances of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and New Bedford Festival Theatre, will be presented in other venues.
David Prentiss, the NBSO’s president and CEO, acknowledges that while the upheaval will be a challenge, it also is an opportunity. “It’ll definitely be worth it, because the plans for the renovation are just going to transform the building. It’s going to be a state-of-the-art, world-class performing arts center with all the amenities and all the conveniences that people should be able to enjoy when they’re at a concert or a show, or any other program there,” Prentiss said.
The new Zeiterion experience will begin even before patrons walk in the door.
“We want to improve what people see on the exterior of the building and be more welcoming,” said Rosemary Gill, president and CEO of the Zeiterion. A marquee will enhance the entrance to the lobby, and the Penler Space will get a new storefront, with floor-to-ceiling windows.
Senior Director of Development Nicole Downing Merusi said: “It will very much have an inviting presence from the street. … It’ll be really kind of open. There’ll be some LED screens in those windows, on top of just the marquee. So it’ll let you know, walking up to it, that the building is alive. There’s something happening inside and it’s something worth checking out. That’s the goal.”
Many of the improvements aim to transform the theatergoer’s experience.
The floor of the auditorium will be demolished and replaced with a stepped arrangement that will improve sightlines. New seating will be installed in a reconfigured layout, and a ramp will be constructed to improve handicap accessibility.
An elevator will be installed to enable access to the basement, the upper lobby, and second and third floors. Currently, the steps to the concession stand are an impediment to patrons with mobility issues.
The men’s room will be moved to the current women’s room space on the first floor, and a new, larger women’s room will be created as part of the redesigned lobby.
Renovation plans call for a “speakeasy” lounge in the basement, one of the new entertainment spaces.
“It’s going to give us a lot more social opportunities, because there’s going to be more spaces … so we’ll be able to have more pre-concert activities, post-concert activities,” said Prentiss.
Spaces on the upper floors will be available for Z education programs, music rehearsals or possibly small ensemble concerts, meetings, film screenings, and more. In all, Prentiss said he expects “there’s going to be lots of opportunities to utilize all that new space to build stronger connections between the orchestra and the community, our audience.”
Also enhancing both the patron and performer experience will be an upgraded sound system and improvements to lighting both onstage and in the hall. A new orchestra pit with a hydraulic lift will serve the basement, theater, and stage levels, perhaps one of the most dramatic changes in the production capabilities.
All the changes need to comply with standards for historic preservation. “It is all historic, so everything has to be approved by the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the National Park Service,” Gill said.
Expected project costs have increased from an earlier estimate of $24 million, Merusi said. Planning for the renovation began in 2018, and the original estimate was calculated two years ago — before the impact of rising costs throughout the U.S. economy and especially in the construction industry. While the increase is significant, she said the Z team is confident that the funding can be secured.
Towards the estimated $31 million cost, the City of New Bedford has committed $5 million from its share of American Rescue Plan Act funds. The Zeiterion is a city-owned building that is maintained by the non-profit organization, Zeiterion Theatre Inc. The remaining $26 million will be paid with money raised by a capital campaign; state funds; and federal and state historic tax credits.
A substantial amount has already been pledged during the leadership phase of the campaign, Merusi said.
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“Our fundraising on the leadership donor side of things has been incredibly successful and is moving a lot faster than we ever thought it would move, and so we’re really thrilled by that. Clearly the city is invested in seeing this building come to life in a way that it hasn’t previously come to life, and it’ll bring more people into the downtown. They see that this is an economic investment in the city,” Merusi said.
“With the state, we have great advocates and partners in Senator [Mark] Montigny, Representative Tony Cabral, and Representative [Christopher] Hendricks, and the rest of the delegation working really hard to make sure that they are able to match that city investment. So we have been really successful so far.”
Montigny’s connection to the Zeiterion goes back to the early days, when he was a student trustee at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth) and was invited to join the board of directors. He was part of the group that gave Gov. Mike Dukakis a tour of the theater during the renovations 40 years ago. He said he is optimistic about securing additional state funds for the project.
WHALE, which originally rescued the theater, is playing an important role again. Teri Bernert, its executive director, is an expert at accessing financing sources such as state and federal grants and historic tax credits for projects including the Seamen’s Bethel and Steeple Playhouse (formerly First Baptist Church) renovations.
State and federal historic tax credits both “have the same requirement that the project has to be designed to be in compliance with the Secretary of Interior’s standards for historic rehabilitation,” Bernert said. There’s a complex process to apply and then a back-and-forth over design changes to meet the standards.
Once approval is achieved, the federal government awards a tax credit equivalent to 20% of “qualified rehab costs,” Bernert said, and the state up to 20%. “We did get federal approval for the historic tax credits, and the state approval should be coming any day now. So that provides about 35% of the total project cost.”
WHALE also lent its expertise in assembling the team of architects and attorneys, and over the last two years worked to make sure the design of the improvements met the historical preservation standards.
“Working with Rosemary and Nicole, I’m just in awe of their capabilities and perseverance,” Bernert said. “It’s a huge, huge project.”
Merusi is bolstering the Zeiterion’s development team as the capital campaign advances from the leadership phase to the public phase, yet to be announced. A posting seeking capital campaign manager applicants is on the Z website.
The performing arts center’s importance to the city’s cultural and economic vitality is well established.
The Z attracted nearly 70,000 patrons in FY 2019. They dine in local restaurants or have a post-show cocktail at downtown bars. Some stay at hotels in the area: Gill said some attendees come from as far as 50 miles away, depending on the show.
An economic analysis Merusi provided states that the Zeiterion and its resident companies (NBSO and NBFT) employ 118 full- and part-time workers, along with dozens of musicians and performers for individual performances.
Spending by the Z and its resident companies, coupled with visitor spending that ripples through the Southeastern Massachusetts economy, benefiting restaurants, hotels, catering companies, printers, and more, contributes a total of 338 jobs and $10.1 million in economic output.
The economic impact of the rehabilitation project itself includes spending for the construction and the hiring of an additional 14 Zeiterion employees to support its mission. It amounts to 398 jobs and $43.2 million in economic output.
The Zeiterion’s cultural contribution is equally significant.
Montigny said he sees the Zeiterion and the Star Store — which he says was key to making the home of the UMass College of Visual and Performing Arts and a satellite of Bristol Community College — as anchors for the rise of the creative economy in New Bedford. “These two buildings and the programs that go on and the people that pass through have absolutely transformed downtown,” the senator said.
“There’s a long track record of two major things that the Zeiterion is in the center of, along with The Star Store and now the State Pier [improvements] and a few other things, and that’s this: absolutely direct leveraging of private investment and job creation, and a complete change of the image of New Bedford. If that’s not worth millions of dollars, what is? That’s why I remain committed,” he said.
Former New Bedford Mayor John K. Bullard, who was director when the Waterfront Historic Area LeaguE rescued the Zeiterion, said that the performing arts center builds on a legacy of the arts in the city.
“If you go back to the days of whaling, and [artists] Bierstadt and Russell and Purrington and Ryder, New Bedford has been a center of the arts. When I started work in the waterfront historic district, the first person who wanted to come live in the waterfront historic district was an artist,” Bullard said.
“So arts have been central to New Bedford’s economic vitality for a long time, and I think people realize that. I think the Zeiterion, maybe more than any other institution, feeds that.”
Not only is the theater an economic asset — for example, filling downtown restaurants on show nights — but a contributor to a better quality of life, Bullard observed.
“When people are exposed to that level of excellence in performing arts, they will raise their expectations in other parts of their life, whether it’s their own educational attainment or what they expect out of government, the quality of life in their neighborhoods. When people get a taste of excellence, they want more of it. That is, I think, one of the best services that the Zeiterion performs.”
Bullard also praised the Zeiterion team. “It’s excellent leadership both on the board they have and the staff, but Rosemary is really a great leader of the theater.”
It’s a long road from the early planning of the capital improvements in 2018 to the anticipated reopening of the performing arts center, but it will be well worth the wait, Gill and others said.
“I do like to visualize things when I’m programming. I’ve told people I visualize someone seeing that performance that night, and how people will feel about it, how the artist will feel being here,” Gill said. “I haven’t quite visualized that opening night … that will be an amazing night for the whole team.”
“It’s a wonderful full circle back to when WHALE saved the Zeiterion,” said Bernert. “I think this is just going to elevate them to a new level, both in community education and then just attracting even better artists to the South Coast.”
The NBSO’s Prentiss said “I think people are going to be blown away when we reopen and they see what we have here, right in New Bedford, bringing in fantastic concerts and programs and shows, and to have it in that atmosphere, that ambiance — it’s just going to be incredible.”
Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent correspondent for The New Bedford Light.
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