By Rob Glidden
Members of the Southington Community Cultural Arts group plan to respond in detail to questions raised by officials about their plans for the Gura Building at Monday’s Town Council meeting.
A two-page analysis of the SCCA’s preliminary construction budget written by Town Council Vice-Chairman Peter Romano was unexpectedly made public last week, leading to confusion on all sides of the discussion.
Romano, the vice-president of a commercial construction management firm, expressed several concerns about logistics, cost and potential issues that could arise from the plan to renovate the building in phases.
When members of the SCCA finally got to read the report, they found it didn’t contain any new information. Mary DeCroce, a local artist who has been at the forefront of the effort, said Romano articulated these concerns during a previous meeting with the group. DeCroce, along with fellow SCCA members Melinda Otlowski and Peter Veronneau, met with Town Council Chairman John Dobbins, Romano, and Councilor Cheryl Lounsbury in July to go over the proposal in detail.
“There’s a whole story behind that report that wasn’t told when it was sent to the press,” DeCroce said. “Everything in that report was the same as the comments he expressed during that meeting. Our answers weren’t in there because we were meant to put it in writing.”
The Gura Building Use Committee recommended the arts center option to the Town Council in late June. During the council’s subsequent meeting, their decision to delay any action on the proposal until at least August led to angry shouts from the attending crowd.
Dobbins also referenced the later meeting with the SCCA and said Romano’s report was a way of getting his analysis on the record.
“There wasn’t that edginess that we saw at the council meeting,” he said. “I had asked [Romano] to come up with a formal version of that assessment and get it to them. Right now the ball is in their court and I’m sure they will come back with something in writing as well.”
Romano’s analysis included concerns about rising construction costs during the process, the planned elevator, and the building’s aging roof and foundation.
“The Gura Building is a project that is going to cost over a million dollars and is located in the heart of our downtown area,” Romano wrote. “This presents an interesting dynamic with a concern that must be seriously considered by the Council…Based on the information presented above, a more in-depth construction budget should be provided. My understanding is that is the intention of the SCCA as their next step.”
Dobbins said that none of the councilors who voted to table the decision in July had any intention of disrespecting the group.
“There’s a lot of emotion involved with this and I understand that,” he said. “People might not like to hear this, but we have to do our due diligence. When you’re presented with something at a council meeting and not prior, how can you make a decision right away? At that point, we hadn’t gotten a chance to fully review that proposal. Everyone on the council is in favor of an arts building, but we don’t want something going wrong later because we didn’t evaluate it enough. We’ve been between a rock and hard place.”
The project has received more scrutiny than some other volunteer efforts that involved town property, such as the effort to restore the drive-in movie theater and the construction project that turned the Milldale firehouse into a new headquarters for the Community Services Department.
Town Councilor Dawn Miceli, who chaired the Gura Building Use committee, said the council had to be mindful of how it treated volunteers.
“One of the greatest things about Southington is the volunteerism,” she said. “So many great programs and initiatives have been put in place through volunteer efforts. Yes, we need to do our due diligence but we have to be careful not to kill the motivation of the volunteers.”
Meanwhile, the SCCA is ready to start fundraising for the project as soon as a final approval is given. DeCroce said that as of June 7, the group had already received a $20,000 grant from the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation that will go towards a detailed study that will help develop the construction plan.
Dobbins said the Gura Building issue would be on the agenda for the next meeting, but did not know for sure if that would lead to a vote.
Aside from reading the SCCA’s written response to the report during the meeting, DeCroce said she was not sure what else the group could do to help the process move along.
“At this point, they have everything they need to make a decision,” she said.