Arts groups are uneasy with outdoor stage plan

Some skeptical, others flatly opposed, 22 representatives of local arts and culture organizations reacted to the concept of an outdoor stage on the former Schlumberger property as a threat more than an opportunity.

They worried an ambitious, development cultural center project on the remaining Schlumberger land could be a money syphon, slurping up arts funding in an already fiscally-tight environment — while potentially hosting events that would compete for the local audiences’ time and attention.

“The town doesn’t need another venue,” said Allison Stockel, executive director of the Ridgefield Playhouse.

“There are people sitting here who don’t understand: ‘Create a stage?’ But it’s going to cost them money,” she said.

The group, convened by the Ridgefield Arts Council for a talk session in town hall on Wednesday, May 30, suggested that other less costly and ambitious uses might be better on the town-owned site.

“See if the garden clubs want to create a botanical garden. Ask the Aldrich and the [artists] guild about a sculpture garden,” said Barbara Manners, who puts on the summer CHIRP concerts in Ballard Park. “See how much it would cost to create trails there. Put in benches for people to walk, and maybe picnic tables.”

The arts groups’ reaction isn’t deterring Dick Larson, who, as chairman of the now disbanded Schlumberger Citizens Committee, is spearheading efforts to do something with the property the committee studied. He said the worries shared at the May 30 meeting shouldn’t derail the outdoor stage plans.

“We were hoping to get input on how a stage could work with existing arts organizations but the group wasn’t able to move beyond their turf issues, so the meeting didn’t help us much,” Larson said the next day. “While the support from the arts organizations was cool, we know that that an outdoor venue is extremely popular with Ridgefield residents. I think that the interests of town residents override a small group trying to protect themselves from competition.”

Survey results

A cultural center with an outdoor stage or amphitheater was recommended by his committee after its extensive surveys of what the public would like to see done with the property.

An outdoor stage had come in as the third most popular among 11 choices — with 743 respondent favoring it, behind walking trails with 957 supporters, and biking trails with 751 — after some narrowing down from an initial survey of opinion on 34 potential uses.

Earlier this year, the selectmen had targeted $25,000 so Larson could have drawings and plans done to take the project through a planning and zoning approval, which Larson had said was a prerequisite for private fund raising — likely in the million of dollars — needed to make an outdoor performance venue a reality.

“We believe this is the best use we can find for this property,” Larson told the selectmen April 4. “We believe it can be an economic driver for Ridgefield.”

Where’d the money go?

The selectmen were initially supportive, based on the economic development potential.

But the $25,000 — to come out of the selectmen’s $61,000 contingency account — is no longer set aside for Schlumberger outdoor stage plans.

“The $25,000 has been withdrawn and will not be allocated for this use,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said the day after the arts council meeting.

He told the selectmen at a May 23 meeting that the $25,000 could improve sewer pumping facilities for the town-owned Theater Barn and Guild of Artists’ barn off Halpin Lane.

Arts Council Chairman Mark Meachem had anticipated the concerns that dominated the talk-session gathered under the council’s auspices.

“We understand everybody’s funding is an issue,” he said, starting off the discussion. “It’s got to be about expanding the pie, not slicing it thinner.”

Nobody on the fence

The arts council, an eight-member town agency appointed by the selectmen, has not taken any stand on the Schlumberger proposal.

Many arts group representatives favored a minimalist approach.

After breaking up into four groups for discussion, they shared consensus opinions of each.

A few were negative on the plan, but open to hearing more. Most were simply opposed,

“Our unanimous consensus is, it’s not a good idea,” said SPHERE’s Rebecca Ciota, spokeswoman for one group.

“We’re against it as well,” said the library’s Leslie Lambton, on behalf another group. “To do it right would be prohibitively expensive…

“In 20 years time, that’s something that could be thought of,” Lampton said. “But right now, we don’t think it’s a good idea.”.

“Nobody here is on the fence,” said Stockel of the Ridgefield Playhouse, speaking for another group. “We all believe it would not compliment existing arts organizations — it would be competition.”

The meeting got feisty, with talk that a “rogue group” had gotten drawings made and was pushing an over-ambitious concept for which there was little real demand.

“Who made this decision without consulting us?” said Stockel.

“There is no decision,” said Larson.

Marconi accepted the blame on behalf of the Board of Selectmen.

“People assumed a decision had been made when we allocated $25,000 to go through zoning,” he said.

Manners, a selectwoman, defended Larson.

“Dick and the committee did a wonderful job,” she said, “and we are eternally grateful for the job they did.”

Promotion confusion

Another concern was that an ambitious project would create a venue that needed programming — and a professional promoter or agency would book events.

“People are stretched,” said Manners. “And to create something new that would have to be turned over to a private promoter … It would compete with the Playhouse, which is our gem — 200 programs there a year.”

“I will fight a bandshell going up tooth and nail,” said Stockel.

“We all benefit from the Playhouse,” Manners said. “Ridgefield has become a destination for the arts...

“To do anything that would potentially damage the Playhouse would be insane.”