Outdoor venue at Schlumberger? Selectmen uneasy dropping plan

If some 2,000 people responded to surveys and listed a “cultural center” or outdoor stage as among the most favored options for the former Schlumberger property, some selectmen weren’t comfortable just letting the plan quietly disappear after opposition from town arts groups.

“If we’re not doing this, I don’t want it on the Board of Selectman,” said Selectman Steve Zemo said the board’s June 6 meeting. “It’s really the arts community that didn’t want this.”

There ought to at least be a vote to drop the plan, he said.

So, at the Board of Selectmen’s next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, June 20, at 6:30 in town hall, it seems likely they’ll discuss and may vote to withdraw $25,000 the selectmen previously allocated to have plans drawn up, as had been proposed by former Schlumberger Citizens Committee chairman Dick Larson. The plans were needed to get zoning approval, Larson had told the selectmen, and that was a prerequisite to begin fundraising to build an outdoor performance venue on the town-owned property.

“We did vote the money,” said Zemo, “...2,300 people said they wanted this.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi, however, had attended the May 30 meeting at which 22 representatives of arts and cultural groups vigorously opposed the plan for an outdoor performance venue — saying it wasn’t needed — concerned about competition for both audience attention and fund-raising dollars.

Marconi trusted their response.

“I look at that group as my eyes and ears for arts,” he said.

Selectwoman Barbara Manners, who had attended the arts council meeting as the producer of the CHIRP concerts in the park, backed up Marconi.

“The consensus of the arts council was unanimous — there isn’t an outdoor venue needed,” she said.

Pam Jones, executive director of the Theater Barn, wondered why the town was in a rush to build an outdoor performance venue when established arts organizations were using town-owned facilities that had gone years without needed improvements — and were financing their own projects.

“The Theater Barn’s been here 53 years — we’re expanding. The Playhouse is expanding, Thrown Stone is only two years old,” she said. “There needs to be a whole lot more discussion.”

Rescind the vote?

Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark agreed with Zemo that the idea of having plans done for the ‘outdoor venue’ shouldn’t just be quietly forgotten.

“We need to formally rescind the vote,” she said.

In response to a question from The Press, Larson said in an email this week that he wasn’t eager to just drop the outdoor venue concept. And other members of the former Schlumberger Citizens Committee, he suggested, were interested in further pursuing a concept that had wide support in the committee’s surveys.

“A number of folks are dismayed that we might not even take the first [step], which is to define what the scope of an outdoor venue could be that would help Ridgefield economically and supplement existing performing arts [groups],” Larson said.

“I think common sense will prevail, that we will continue to work on the scope and vision for an outdoor venue and that we will respect the wish of a large number of residents who were excited about the prospect of an outdoor venue.

“If the authorization by the board to take a small step in defining the vision and scope for an outdoor venue comes up in a future BoS meeting, I’m sure some folks will attend.”

Larson also pointed out that some who now opposed an outdoor venue had sounded very supportive of it a couple of years back.

And he said some outdoor venue opponents were pushing a narrative “that there is a plan to hire a promoter to develop a series of rock acts that would devastate ‘life as we know it’ in Ridgefield” — something Larson described as “absurd.”

Trails and tables

At their June 6 meeting, the selectmen had a consensus that the concept that had won support in the surveys had included more than just an amphitheater and bandshell — the “outdoor venue” now being debated.

There’d been trails, and picnic areas — concepts that seemed widely supported, and without much opposition.

“We’d still like to do the trails,” Marconi said.