The doors to the Star Store are locked to the public now.

The former College of Visual and Performing Arts in New Bedford is no more. Its former home is just another empty building on Union Street. A big one.

Across the street is what’s called “the hole on Union Street.”

The hole has been there since 2004 when early one morning the roof collapsed on the long vacant Keystone Building, a former three-story furniture storefront. It’s been 19 years and no one has been able to come up with a plan for the site. UMass Dartmouth long ago took a pass on building a dormitory there.

Weeds grow in an empty lot on Union Street known as “The hole on Union Street.” The former Keystone Building collapsed in 2004 and the city has been unable to redevelop the site ever since. A “Black Lives Matter” sign has hung on the site for several years. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light Credit: Jack Spillane

Mass Development, the state government’s finance and development agency, has tried unsuccessfully to bid the Keystone site out several times. There is currently an “Agreement Pending” label on a Mass Development webpage devoted to the site, however, so maybe there’s hope. But it’s taken almost 20 years.

Will the Star Store be vacant a similar amount of time? A lot of buildings that go empty in New Bedford are. Let’s hope someone somehow repairs its roof before long.

Meanwhile, a block away, the news this week is that some city councilors are balking at granting a 99-year-lease to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center. The successful theater has ambitious plans to renovate the city-owned structure, but they need a long lease to attract investors. 

Without the lease, the theater could go out of business, said president and CEO Rosemary Gill this week. 

So it’s possible that both the CVPA and the Zeiterion, the two biggest redevelopment initiatives in downtown New Bedford in the last 30 years, could go dark within months of each other. Meanwhile, incumbent Mayor Jon Mitchell has no viable opposition as he runs for a sixth term.

The Zeiterion Performing Arts Center is located diagonally across Purchase Street from the now empty Star Store. State Rep. Chris Markey has suggested that the Zeiterion and other nonprofits contribute to the formation of an artist cooperative at the site. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

So what will downtown New Bedford be without the CVPA fine arts students? 

Those students have not just been downtown for the last 20 years of the Star Store campus but for many decades before that. The CVPA artisans group was previously located on Purchase Street. And before its merger, the Swain School of Design was a prominent private arts college in the downtown County Street area for decades. 

This is going to be a big change for New Bedford.

UMass Dartmouth has been oddly strenuous about its argument that it just can’t afford to run the downtown college in the 1915-built former grand department store. Too much deferred maintenance.

I remain skeptical about that argument.

This past year I had been hearing there was $30 million in deferred maintenance at the Star Store — that’s the number the Legislature was willing to earmark in the Fiscal 2024 state budget if the school had taken the building for $1. But when I asked UMD Chancellor Mark Fuller about it, he surprised me by saying that the number might even be between $50 and $75 million. 

That’s a big and imprecise window, chancellor.

Even if it was a realistic number, which I don’t think it is,  I don’t really see this latest figure as the impediment that UMass does.

First off, it’s no secret that the Dartmouth campus itself — built between 1964 and 1966 — is said to need a breathtaking $691 million in deferred maintenance. That’s a number that dwarfs any maintenance needed at the New Bedford Star Store. 

A view of the aging Science and Engineering building at UMass Dartmouth. Credit: Jack Spillane / The Bedford Light

One thing is clear. It doesn’t seem to matter whether a UMass building is 57 years old like the Dartmouth campus buildings or 108 years old like the New Bedford one. They both need rebuilding and upgrades when they pass the half century mark. And when you factor in things like environmental sustainability requirements, it’s expensive. But these are things that all aging buildings need in this day and age. 

I asked UMass Dartmouth this week to provide me with specific purposes that account for such astronomical maintenance estimates, and the university sent me some generalized spending purposes, but no specific numbers. Spokesman Ryan Merrill said with more time he’d try to furnish more detail.

“Updating the building has been made more expensive because of the need to bring all systems up to modern sustainability and accessibility codes and the cost escalation from inflation,” Merrill wrote. “Major deferred maintenance projects include replacing all air handlers in the HVAC system, flooring throughout the building, the roof of the building, all windows and exterior doors, and the hot water system.”

That adds up to $75 million?

Does all this work have to be done at once? I’ve been in the New Bedford CVPA many times and while there are some visible needs like a sagging roof in certain places, most of it looks in much better shape than many of the buildings in the downtown.

Again, it just looks like the UMass Building Authority and the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance are looking for a way to get an old building off the state and university’s inventory. And it just looks like UMass Dartmouth is itching for an excuse to downsize and even eventually eliminate the fine arts school. And particularly the Master of Fine Arts program in New Bedford.

Neither UMBA or DCAMM seem to have the future of an economically depressed city as part of their equations at all. 

Merrill over three days didn’t give me any specific breakdowns for the almost $700 million maintenance bill that UMass Dartmouth is throwing around for the main campus, but instead sent percentages of how much work was estimated in various categories. It ranged from 3% for mechanical work to 21% for “general renovations.” Upgrading HVAC systems would account for an estimated 19% of the work, exterior work (mainly windows and doors, 17%).

As with the Star Store estimates, the UMass Dartmouth spokesman said he could research dollar figures if given more time, or convert the percentages in dollars.

What? Convert percentages that haven’t been explained in the first place to dollars?

That’s a spending estimate the public is supposed to rely on? This is the kind of vague estimate on which the state university closed a 20-year New Bedford campus two weeks before a semester was to begin?

I couldn’t help thinking these don’t seem like real numbers at all.

UMBA and DCAMM calculate all the estimates, Merrill said. Again. These are those mysterious state bureaucracies with the power to decide whether an arts college in New Bedford survives. It’s an amazing thing.

The doors at the former College of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown New Bedford are now closed to the public. A “Save the Star Store” sign made by CVPA students still hangs in the doorway. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light Credit: Jack Spillane

The reason for the large amount of maintenance at the Dartmouth campus may be threefold. Some of the reasons are specific to UMD. But some of them, as I’ve said before, are a result of inequities in the way the state funds the university system across campuses which are in very different sets of circumstances.

Suffice it to say the following are all involved:

  • Underfunding by the state Legislature and a long succession of governors.
  • Under-investment by owner Paul Downey.
  • The fact that the UMass Dartmouth campus, unlike UMass Amherst and UMass Lowell, was built all at once after the old New Bedford Institute of Technology and Bradford Durfee College of Technology in Fall River merged in the 1960s.

Chancellor Fuller has tried to make the argument that UMass Dartmouth can’t afford the Star Store maintenance because it already has so much other maintenance to do on the principal campus. That’s a good insight into how UMass Dartmouth views the New Bedford CVPA campus. It’s just an add-on, not an integral part of the university. 

And really, if you have almost $700 million in deferred maintenance to undertake, what’s another $70 million? For Pete’s sake, chancellor, pretend the Star Store building is in Dartmouth on the main campus and just part of the other $700 million. What difference does it make that it’s in New Bedford?

These numbers are like cloud puffs anyway. They’re way up in the sky, and no one can really see them close enough to understand what the bills will actually be. Reputable sources familiar with the building say they are exaggerated.

Let’s be frank. The real problem is that UMass Dartmouth sees its fine arts school as a dud. 

Like a lot of university departments (not just the fine and liberal arts), CVPA enrollment has been declining.

So UMD — under the firm philosophical direction of the President’s Office and Board of Trustees — has wanted to move on from fine arts disciplines that have hundreds of years of tradition in favor of more contemporary pursuits: things like digital gaming, fashion design, interior decorating. Those last two academic pursuits have been transferred over from Mt. Ida College after UMass Amherst purchased its Newton campus and are among the concentrations that are being promoted at UMD right now.

Supposedly there are more jobs in that direction, but I’m skeptical of that too. It seems to me that thousands of fine arts graduates have found their ways to very successful careers in teaching and the entertainment, marketing and crafts industries and, like everyone else these days, they adapt very well to the digital economy, thank you very much.

Don’t take my word for what UMass Dartmouth is really up to. Here’s what Sightlines, a “facilities asset advisory firm,” recommended in bold print for UMass Dartmouth as far back as 2013.

“UMD will never have enough investment to fix all facilities in the foreseeable future.” And then a few sentences later the recommendation “Identify buildings in poor condition and with limited program value.”

So that’s what’s really been going on here for a long time. UMD thinks the Star Store is in poor condition at the same time as it thinks the CVPA has limited program value. 

That’s academic programmatic value, by the way, that is only measured by the metric of paying its own way. 

But how do you expect a program to succeed when three successive out-of-region chancellors, neither promoted it nor believed in it? Faculty tell me that for years now departing CVPA faculty have not been replaced, and the university has not recruited from the artisan fairs. 

No, the problem is that the UMass university system’s funding has to be done out of its own resources instead of state coffers. So a succession of UMass Dartmouth chancellors is looking for easy fixes to the capital shortfall with programs that will quickly make a lot of money.

So UMass Dartmouth is walking away from a fine arts tradition that not only has a long and storied international history, but which the city of New Bedford had fought long and hard to establish in the 1980s — when the Swain School of fine arts merged with UMD and when UMD also absorbed the Boston University artisan program previously absorbed by Swain.

Former Mayor Scott Lang was the attorney for the merger of the Swain School and the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts. Here he attends a rally in favor of saving the downtown Star Store campus. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Personally, I think this masters artisans school in downtown New Bedford could attract students from across the country — like the ones I’ve already met from Arizona, Montana and New York state in recent days. The problem may be that the university has not concentrated on promoting and developing it.

It very much seems like this fight is being waged on the wrong battlefield. It should be a fight about the worth of fine arts and the worth of post-industrial (Gateway) cities, not a battle about the cost of maintenance of older buildings.

For weeks now the governor, the South Coast legislative delegation and the mayor of New Bedford have been almost as quiet as the now empty Star Store block concerning any new developments in the fight to restore the campus to New Bedford.

Late last week, Mitchell announced that there is a kiln of some sort in the basement of the New Bedford Art Museum and offered to let the ceramics program of the CVPA relocate there. Really? That’s a solution to all this? 

Like every other elected official in the city, Mitchell reportedly continues to work on the issue. But what is taking so long? What is there to be worked out other than restoring the state and university budgets for this school being in downtown New Bedford? 

The money for the New Bedford CVPA campus is a pittance of money in the overall state budget. Even if you really had to bond $70 million over 30 years, that’s a small and a rather wise investment in an overall state budget of almost $56 billion this year. That is if you really believe in a publicly-funded university system.

I asked one busy ceramics student about the single Art Museum kiln (there were seven or eight of them in the Star Store) and the student hadn’t even heard about it. The semester began three weeks ago.

The athletic center at the main campus of UMass Dartmouth. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Gov. Maura Healey, by her ongoing low profile, seems to have made her position known. She’s not in a rush to take up arms for New Bedford’s fine arts campus.

The demise of the Star Store may actually have been predictable, given the Sightlines recommendation back in 2013. All that was really needed was an excuse for the politicians to say they did everything they could. Sen. Mark Montigny’s decision to remove the funding for lease payments to developer Paul Downey gave them that excuse.

The only one talking about the New Bedford CVPA at all recently was the guy who has been crowing the loudest that the city campus is just too expensive, state Rep. Chris Markey of Dartmouth.

And his ideas seem to be evolving. 

Markey was originally talking about the departure being an opportunity to use the building for the wind industry or housing. Nothing about the arts at all.

But two weeks later, and after an outpouring of support for the role that the public arts college has played in the revival of downtown New Bedford, the 12-year state rep — the son of a former mayor who grew up in New Bedford — seemed to have come to a newfound awareness of the value of the arts in the city. Either that or he is trying to poke what he considers a local elite in favor of things like art schools.

Markey is pushing the idea that local nonprofits should all kick in to form an artists co-op at the Star Store building.

“We’ve given a lot of money to the Zeiterion over the years. And a lot of people, a lot of very rich people, have given a lot of money to the Zeiterion to see it succeed. And if the arts are their thing, they could (give) money to this place as well,” Markey said in an interview on WBSM’s Southcoast Now.

Markey also name-checked the Community Foundation and Marion Institute as entities that might want to contribute to establishing an artists co-op that, in addition to sponsoring studios and a rehearsal place for the Z, could maybe attract other arts schools. Just not the local public university, which of course would be too expensive for the taxpayers.

Right. Replace a functioning state arts college with a huge amount of nonprofit money for an artists co-op when there are already several other artists co-ops around town.

I like Chris Markey. 

Whatever you think of his generally conservative political stances, he’s a stand-up guy. 

I think he really believes that the local branch of the state university simply can’t afford the New Bedford CVPA. He doesn’t seem to have any issue, or have even thought about the fact that the state funds the building and maintenance of public elementary schools, secondary schools and even state colleges, but not the University of Massachusetts. Neither does the rest of the legislative delegation for that matter as we’ve heard nothing from them about the university building funding formula that has led to this whole effort by UMBA and DCAMM to remove the CVPA from downtown New Bedford. 

Here are the facts. As a result of a funding change engineered a little over a decade ago by those who don’t want to publicly fund higher education in Massachusetts, UMass building projects are now paid for in a very different way from the rest of the state’s education infrastructure. 

New dormitories at UMass Dartmouth at the main campus in Dartmouth. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The state of Massachusetts’ clear preference is to fund UMass building and maintenance through the individual UMass campuses doing their own borrowing, not through the state government doing the borrowing.

It’s a beautiful thing. Well-to-do campuses like Amherst gain more upgrades, while struggling ones like Boston and Dartmouth don’t get as much. The purchase by UMass Amherst in 2018 of the $75 million Mt. Ida campus, all the way across the state in Newton, in UMass Boston’s backyard, is the biggest example of this discrepancy in equity. The Mt. Ida purchase happened even as UMass Boston, a minority-majority school, struggled with its own under-capitalized building program.

Massachusetts now has a public university system that is misadvisedly trying to function as if it were a for-profit, purely capitalistic enterprise. This approach is going to change the nature of public higher education forever in this state.

The Boston Globe as far back as 2015 noted that Connecticut state government provides twice as much state aid as larger Massachusetts and carries all the debt service for its expanding state university.

Rep. Markey, even though I believe he’s wrong on the issue, at least can be relied upon to accurately describe what has really gone down here.

That’s something I’m not convinced that Gov. Healey, UMass President Marty Meehan, Chancellor Fuller, Sen. Montigny, Mayor Mitchell, and state Reps. Tony Cabral and Chris Hendricks have come close to doing yet. Sure, there’s talk of a lawsuit against Downey by Hendricks and Sen. Montigny, but who would be the litigants? It certainly won’t be UMass Dartmouth.

This issue is a lot bigger than what Paul Downey did or did not do for the Star Store.

Markey recently told local talk radio host Marcus Ferro that he thinks the issue of CVPA in New Bedford is over.

“Well, let’s look at it. You are offered a building for free and you don’t take it. I’m not the smartest guy in the room but I kind of can read the tea leaves,” he said.

Then he repeated the argument that it’s all too expensive one more time.

“Why should we look at it and say, ‘Jam something down someone’s throat that they don’t want?’”

True enough, Rep. Markey. 

Despite their protestations that they want to keep the CVPA in New Bedford, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth really doesn’t want to. And it looks like neither does the state’s highest elected officials. Certainly its government building bureaucracies don’t. 

And it looks like most of the local elected officials don’t know how to do it.

Email columnist Jack Spillane at

Editor’s Note: This story was amended on Sept. 25, 2023, to correct the names of the two predecessor schools in New Bedford and Fall River to UMass Dartmouth. It was also updated on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, to correctly identify the municipality where Mt. Ida College is located.

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