The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. Credit: David W. Oliveira / The New Bedford Light

NEW BEDFORD — The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center on Thursday night moved a big step closer to launching a multimillion-dollar renovation designed to transform the century-old downtown theater, a pillar of city arts and cultural life. 

“I’m very, very pleased,” said Zeiterion President and Chief Executive Officer Rosemary Gill after a City Council committee voted 9-2 to approve a 99-year lease on the city-owned building, an agreement needed to bankroll the project, which is expected to cost $32 million or more. 

Last month, Gill said she was concerned that the lease and the renovation could be in jeopardy as she was hearing that some councilors were wavering in their support. She said then, and repeated Thursday night before the committee, that without the lease, the project would collapse. In that event, she told the council, “the building would be closed indefinitely. I believe that would be catastrophic for downtown New Bedford.”

The lease, which essentially gives the Zeiterion the benefits and responsibilities of owning the building for a price of one dollar, still has to be approved by a supermajority of eight votes on the City Council, which is expected to take up the question at its regular meeting next Thursday. The Committee on City Property approval is considered tantamount to a full council vote, as the two bodies are made up of the same 11 members. 

Two dissenting votes were cast by At-large Councilor and City Council President Linda Morad and Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta. Both said they support the Zeiterion — which has featured more than 60 performances a year of music, theater, film and dance — but they were concerned about committing the city to a 99-year agreement.

A lawyer representing the Zeiterion, Daniel J. Kolodner, a partner in the Boston firm Klein Hornig, told the committee that the 99-year term is considered a “gold standard” to ensure that project financing qualifies for historic tax credits. At the moment, Gill has said, about a quarter of the renovation cost depends on one investor in the project getting federal and state tax credits.

Along with the historic tax credits money, Gill has said the renovation plan is being financed with philanthropic donations and city, state and federal funds. Contractor bids are still coming in, Gill said, and the total cost could ultimately be higher than the estimated $32 million. 

Kolodner said the arrangement could work with a 65- or 70-year term, but not shorter than that. 

Morad proposed amending the lease to 65 years, but the motion failed without a second. Giesta, who chairs the committee, said after the meeting that under parliamentary rules, she could not second the motion without stepping down from running the session. 

The vote came after councilors spent two hours posing questions about details of the lease to Gill, Kolodner, and City Solicitor Eric Jaikes, whose office had drafted the 25-page agreement presented by Mayor Jon Mitchell.

Council members were seeking assurances that the building would remain a performing arts center, that the Zeiterion would keep its commitments and that the city would have recourse if it did not. The lease was approved as presented with one minor correction referring to the interest on any payments the Zeiterion might have to make in case it defaults on the agreement. 

Giesta told Jaikes that she was worried about the term of the agreement in light of a 99-year lease signed decades ago in the North End that has not worked out well for the city.  A Chevrolet dealer on Kings Highway that leased property owned by the New Bedford Regional Airport went bankrupt and sub-leased the land to Stop & Shop, Giesta said after the meeting. 

“I really want to be assured that that’s not going to happen again,” Giesta told Jaikes. 

Jaikes, who was not city solicitor when the Chevrolet dealer lease was signed, acknowledged the city “cut a bad deal” in that instance, but he argued that “this is completely different from Kings Highway … It’s apples and oranges.”

Councilor at-Large Ian Abreu asked Gill if she felt that the significance of the Zeiterion looms larger in light of the fact that another downtown arts venue, the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts, last month moved out of the former Star Store building on Union and Purchase streets, a short walk from the Zeiterion. 

“We’ve always felt we were responsible to the city,” said Gill. 

Abreu mentioned estimates that the Zeiterion — the 1,200-seat home to the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the New Bedford Festival Theatre — generates $10 million a year in economic activity for the city.

“We believe we have a great responsibility for that as well,” Gill said, noting that on performance dates, or “Z nights,” local restaurants and other businesses have to prepare to handle bigger crowds of customers. 

The renovation includes a new facade, a new upper lobby, new small performance space, updated seats and restrooms. About half the work is just to bring the building up to code for electrical, plumbing and structural components, Gill said last month. 

According to the Zeiterion website, the building originally opened in April 1923. The interior as it appears now was opened in 1981. The Zeiterion for 10 years has been using the building under a management agreement with the city rather than a lease, Gill said. 

She said renovation work could begin late this year and is expected to take about 14 months. To prepare for the renovation, the building has been shut down and emptied of all sound, lighting and concessions equipment. Offices have moved temporarily to the DeMello International Center. 

Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at

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