By Rob Glidden
The Town Council once again tabled their decision on the proposal by the Southington Community Cultural Arts (SCCA) group to turn the Gura Building into an arts center, after a plan presented by the Republicans led to a heated argument.
For several months, the SCCA has been seeking approval from the council to begin raising funds for the project, which is expected to cost about $1.2 million. The group has asked for 18 months to raise funds from private donors and various potential grants for the first phase of construction.
Meetings between council members and SCCA members have given both sides a chance of go over the details of the project, and on Monday the SCCA released a formal written response to several written concerns expressed by Vice-Chairman Peter Romano.
Chairman John Dobbins presented a plan that would require the SCCA to raise the entire $1.2 million within 18 months. In addition, the group would need to complete the construction in a single phase and would be responsible for all maintenance costs of the building, including heat and electricity, during the pre-construction phase.
“There is support on the council and in the community for an arts center,” Dobbins said. “This compromise allows the SCCA to continue and protects the taxpayers.”
The council’s three Democrats knew nothing about this proposal prior to the meeting and objected to being kept out of the loop. The SCCA was also hearing the idea for the first time.
“To get these stipulations tonight that we haven’t seen and then have to vote on them is totally unfair,” said Councilor Chris Palmieri.
The discussion degenerated further after Councilor Al Natelli accused the Gura Building Use Committee, which recommended the arts center option, of favoritism. In particular, he singled out Councilor Dawn Miceli, the chair of that committee and a former member of the SCCA’s board of directors.
“I don’t think the necessary due diligence was done,” Natelli said. “It’s important to represent all the people, not just one group. The committee was the group’s lawyer, judge and jury.”
Miceli said she was “saddened” by the comments and reminded the rest of the council that she had been asked to chair the committee by former Council Chairman Edward Pocock, III. She said she had expressed doubts to Pocock and Town Attorney Mark Sciota, who both assured her there was no conflict of interest since she does not stand to gain financially from the arts center project.
Palmieri and Councilor John Barry were incensed by the personal nature of Natelli’s comments and were quick to defend her.
“We can disagree on the Gura Building,” Barry said. “That’s fine, it’s a tough issue. But this was a personal attack on our colleague and it’s disgusting. You owe her an apology.”
No apology was given, but the officials had calmed down after a brief recess was called. Miceli invited SCCA member Peter Veronneau, who has overseen the project’s construction plan, to address the new proposal. He said the plan presented that evening would bring the group’s plans for the building to an end.
“We can not raise that full amount in 18 months,” Veronneau said. “The plan has always been to raise funds for the first phase and carry on after that. These grants roll in cycles and it just won’t work this way.”
After further discussion, it became clear that the confusion came from a brief section of the SCCA’s written response that addressed the phased construction plan.
“At the beginning of our consideration of the Gura building, SCCA thought that a phased construction project might be the way to renovate the building,” the section reads. “We were uncertain of the availability of public and private funding sources. As we have become more familiar with state and federal funds, SCCA has concluded that a renovation of the Gura is best funded and completed in a single phase of construction, and this is our intention moving forward from this point.”
Romano said that he expected the SCCA would be comfortable raising all the funds in the 18-month windows based on this part of the group’s response.
“We must have misinterpreted that statement,” he said. “We’re a lot farther apart than I thought we were.”
A motion to table the decision had failed earlier in the meeting, as did a motion by Palmieri to adopt the SCCA’s proposal without the new stipulations. After the discussion with Veronneau, the council unanimously agreed to a table.