NEW BEDFORD — The leader of the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center is worried about the future of their multi-million-dollar renovation and perhaps even the theater itself as the City Council is poised for a crucial vote on the organization’s lease for the city-owned building.
Rosemary Gill, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization — a mainstay in the arts and cultural life of New Bedford — said she’s concerned that the renovation could be in jeopardy if the term of the lease is not long enough for a key investor to qualify for historic preservation tax credits. Those credits make up nearly a third of the $32 million estimated renovation cost, which could ultimately be higher due to ever-rising construction prices.
“I have heard there are city councilors who have some concerns about the lease, particularly the length of the lease,” Gill said in an interview on Thursday, a week before the full council is expected to vote on the lease. “That is concerning. The capital project will fall apart without the lease.”
Without the $8 million to $10 million from one investor, Gill said the renovation plan could be scaled back, but any savings would likely be eaten up by the cost of re-doing years of planning, as well as escalating construction costs because of the delay. If the lease falls through, she said it’s possible that the Zeiterion, which opened in April, 1923, would have to close.
The uncertainty raises the prospect of a second body blow to the city’s downtown arts scene a month after UMass Dartmouth decided to move the College of Visual and Performing Arts out of the historic Star Store building.
The 1,200-seat theater — home to the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra and the New Bedford Festival Theatre — has featured more than 60 performances a year of music, theater, film and dance.
The proposed 99-year lease makes clear that the agreement is a key piece of the renovation of the building at Union Street and Acushnet Avenue. Plans include 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.
The Zeiterion for 10 years has been using the building under a management agreement with the city rather than a lease, Gill said.
If all goes well, Gill 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 a short walk away on Union Street, Gill said.
The draft 25-page lease is scheduled to be considered by the council’s Property Committee on Wednesday and expected to be taken up by the council the next day.
One council member said in an interview that they have questions about the 99-year term, but several also said they do not want to jeopardize the renovation.
Key questions are just how long a lease is needed to secure the federal historic tax credits, and how many council votes may be wavering on the lease. The committee can move the issue to the council with a simple majority, but approving the lease would require a supermajority of eight votes to pass the 11-member council.
Ward 2 City Councilor Maria Giesta, who chairs the Property Committee, said she is mostly concerned about the 99-year term and conveyed those thoughts to Gill in a recent Zoom call.
“I support the Zeiterion, I frequent the Zeiterion,” Giesta said. “I don’t feel comfortable voting for a 99-year lease,” she said.
“I agree on the long-term,” said Giesta, “but why the 99 years? I may be comfortable with 50 or 60. There may be someone who can answer that question. That’s why we’re holding a hearing.”
Giesta was on the council in spring 2019 when the panel voted unanimously to ask the state Legislature for an act allowing the city an exception to state law that does not allow municipalities to lease public buildings for more than 30 years. But, she said, “now you’re saying 99 years,” which she said seems a long time to be tying the hands of future legislators.
While the state law sets a 30-year limit, council agenda minutes of May 9, 2019, show that the council voted 11-0 to approve a home rule petition “Authorizing the City of New Bedford to Enter Into a Lease Agreement for a term of up to 99 Years for Purposes of Operation of a Performing Arts Center.”
That number is in the proposed lease, but it is not clear exactly how long the term would have to be to secure federal historic preservation tax credits for one key investor in the renovation. Gill declined to identify the investor, other than to say it’s a company not an individual.
She said federal law requires a private enterprise such as the Zeiterion to have, if not ownership, at least a long-term commitment on a piece of historic property for tax credits to qualify as part of a financing plan. The law does not specify a number of years, but Gill said her organization is trying to research that number in preparation for meeting with the council.
Along with the historic tax credits money, Gill said the renovation plan is being financed with philanthropic donations and city, state and federal funds.
Councilor-at-Large Naomi R.A. Carney — who was a councilor in 2019 — said she may raise questions about the lease at the committee meeting, but she said she had no objection to the term of the lease itself.
Councilor-at-Large Shane Burgo — who was not on the panel in 2019 when the 99-year term was approved — said he’s heard concern about the length of the lease from other councilors, but he does not share it.
Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira, who also was not on the council in 2019, said he would not allow the lease term to interfere with the renovation. He said he was not happy with a provision allowing the Zeiterion to buy the building back for a dollar at the end of the lease term, but that was cut from the proposed agreement in the last few weeks.
Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey said he had no objection to the current lease term, and wondered aloud what could possibly be done with the century-old building if the Zeiterion had to leave.
“We’re not going to turn it into an office building,” he said.
Email City Hall reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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