$1.2-million Venus renovation: School offices to relocate for Playhouse expansion

Almost $1.2 million is the estimated cost for renovations to the Venus building that would allow relocation of the school offices — a move intended to accommodate the proposed expansion of the Ridgefield Playhouse.

“Revenue from the Playhouse would be probably not quite enough to cover debt service on this,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi told the selectmen Thursday night, March 8.

The anticipated additional rental income from the Playhouse’s expansion is expected to be about $60,000 a year.

“It was tight, with just the $60,000,” Marconi said.

The plan is for the school administrative offices to be relocated to the first floor of the building’s south wing — the former RVNA space — allowing the Playhouse to expand into the current school offices, which are adjacent to the Playhouse’s performance venue in the old high school auditorium.

Borrowing and spending $1.2 million on renovations would require approval of the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance and then voters — either as part of the annual budget process or at a separate town meeting.

After receiving renovation cost estimates from architect Jeff Mose, the selectmen scheduled the topic for further discussion at their meeting Wednesday, March 21. The selectmen’s meeting immediately follows a 7:30 town meeting on a proposed anti-fracking ordinance. The selectmen meet as the Fire Commission at 6 p.m. that evening.

The town’s Venus renovations would cost $1,198,000 — which includes just under $1,070,000 for construction, and a little over $128,000 for “soft costs,” like architectural and engineering fees.

That would be for renovations of the ground floor and some basement space in the building’s south wing, facing the police station.

But the $1.2-million estimate does not, Mose noted, include new ventilation and air conditioning  (“HVAC” equipment), a new sprinkler system should the fire marshal decide that’s needed, or an upgrade of the lower-level bathrooms.

“The $1.2 million is not really $1.2 million,” said Selectman Bob Hebert. “I think we need to look at these other numbers.”

“If we do get into HVAC — yes, that’s a big number,” Marconi acknowledged.

The town has separate negotiations going on to rent the second floor of the south wing to Chefs’ Warehouse, bringing in additional income estimated at $500,000 a year. Chefs’, which already occupies the bulk of Venus building space, would pay for its own renovations in the new space it would rent.

Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark noted that the upper floor Chefs’ rental isn’t dependent on the $1.2-million renovation.

“Chefs’ Warehouse, we’ve been negotiating with them,” Kozlark said. “That’s revenue regardless of whether we do this project or not.”

Hebert asked the building would be “self-supporting.”

“It is,” Marconi said.

He later provided The Press with three years of figures showing income from the building exceeding expense by better than $200,000 a year from 2014-15 to 2016-17.

Annual income from the building’s various rents ranging from about $494,000 to over $584,000 over that period, while annual expenses ranged from $293,000 to $354,000.

The town’s after-expense income from the building was approximately: $230,000 for 2014-15; $240,000 for for 2015-16; and $201,000 for 2016-17.

Selectman Steve Zemo said the benefits of doing the project would include upgrading the town-owned space to today’s standards.

Zemo emphasized that the importance of the renovations is that moving the school offices would facilitate expansion of the Playhouse — which he described as “an economic driver in our community.”

Playhouse expansion

The planned expansion of the Playhouse would be financed through private fund-raising, said Playhouse Executive Director Allison Stockel, who views the upgrade as needed to keep the performance venue viable.

Most visible to the public would be expansion and renovation of the lobby, including the accommodations for concessions.

“Because of offices on the second floor, it’s going to allow us to redo the backstage space for the artists. They eat in the hallway, basically. It’s not conducive to the high-end artists — they play in all these renovated theaters, and then they come here.

“The other thing we’re going to do is have a VIP party room. That’s going to be huge for us in terms of getting additional income,” she said.

Stockel expects the project will need a substantial amount of fund raising.

“The campaign we’re doing for everything is somewhere in that $5- to $6-million range,” Stockel said.

Who’s on board?

The planned Venus renovations would require relocation of some smaller tenants now in the South Wing of the Venus building, including the second floor area that is expected to be rented to Chefs’ Warehouse. These include Kumon Math, Loosen Up Massage and the school system’s Adult Education offices.

Zemo wondered if accommodating the smaller tenants was worth the expense.

“Why not just have it a municipal building, and not a municipal building with a massage component,” he said — drawing some laughs.

Kozlark wondered if school leaders were “on board” with the plans to move the Board of Education’s central offices.

Marconi said architect Mose had worked with school facilities manager Joe Morits in calculating whether the school administration would fit in the area planned. It will, though some people may have smaller offices.

“They’re not on board yet,” Marconi added.