Selectmen want fall public hearings to decide fate of final Schlumberger parcel

“There’s no bandshell,” an exasperated First Selectman Rudy Marconi said. “There’s a simple little platform stage … I don’t know where this bandshell came from.”

Marconi was trying to defang a “bandshell scenario” that had sharpened opposition — most evident among performing arts groups — to the town pursuing plans for an outdoor performance venue on the former Schlumberger property.

The bandshell scenario — as envisioned by worried opponents — potentially involves a professional promoter putting on concerts and shows in an as yet unbuilt facility on the town-owned property. No town official appears to be advocating bringing in a promoter.

A drawing done for the report on 2016 surveys by the Schlumberger Citizen’s Committee headed by Dick Larson showed a “cultural destination surrounded by open area and walking trails” with a “outdoor amphitheater and stage” as its centerpiece — possibly sparking the “bandshell” talk.

With a “Schlumberger discussion” on the selectmen’s June 20 agenda, strong views were heard both for and against developing the property as a cultural destination with an outdoor stage, and the selectmen plotted a fairly careful path between the crashing rocks.

Marconi occasionally stepped in to prevent the debate from descending into back-and-forth between partisans of different visions.

Arts organizations are skeptical of an outdoor performance venue at Schlumberger.

A project like this would be financed by private fund raising, although the selectmen did vote earlier this year to allocate $25,000 to have plans drawn up that could go through the planning and zoning process, and serve as a basis for fund-raising — money the selectmen no longer plan on spending that way.

The arts people worry that an ambitious new project could syphon donations and grants away from existing organizations — such as the Theater Barn, and the Playhouse, which are both planning expansions. There’s also concern about thinning out the potential audience with too many performances.

The selectmen agreed not to spend $25,000 on an application — plans, designs, a traffic study — although they didn’t rescind a previous motion authorizing such an expenditure, leaving the appropriation to expire with the fiscal year’s end.

This irked veteran board-watcher Ed Tyrell.

“You should have the guts to vote,” he said.

The selectmen did agree they’ll want a "survey" of the site — a topographic study — after completion of the current project putting in landscaping and parking for tenants of two buildings: ACT of Connecticut in the theater; and BassamFellows design in the Philip Johnson building.

And the selectmen decided to put off any decision on appointing another committee until in the fall. What remains to be considered is whether the town wants to advance plans for some kind of cultural destination on the property — with an outdoor stage, or possibly just a sculpture garden as some arts leaders are now advocating.

Another less ambitious possibility Marconi described involves trails, grass, or a field planted with wildflower seeds, and maybe some picnic tables.

Differing opinions

The June 20 discussion showed the board open to a less ambitious vision, but some at the meeting — including members of the former Schlumberger committee — were troubled that the “cultural destination” might simply be set aside.

“The public wanted trails,” Marconi said.

“Open space,” agreed Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark. “Don’t build anything there. Use it for the arts.”

“That’s not really what’s in the report,” Larson said. “We called it a stage and amphitheater.”

Several speakers supported differing opinions at the June 20 meeting.

“There’s plenty of room for another cultural venue in this town,” said Chuck Hancock of the former committee. “If you’re thinking of backing away from doing a bandshell, I think that’s wrong.”

Wayne Goldman of Olcott Way in Casagmo was skeptical of a performance venue for shows beyond the current summer evening CHIRP concerts.

“If we’re going to do something much bigger than CHIRP, I’m against it,” he said.

Economic driver?

Arnold Light of the Economic and Community Development Commission thought a performance venue would bring economic vitality — show-goers in restaurants, shops open late. He pointed ACT of Connecticut’s success with its first production in the former Schlumberger theater the group leased from the town and renovated.

“It’s an economic driver,” Light said “Just like ACT — they built it, and they’re coming. There isn’t a ticket to be had.”

Daniella Sikora of the Ridgefield Chorale thought things were moving too quickly.

“We’d like to ask for further hearings on this,” she said.

“We certainly want to promote the arts in Ridgefield — it’s an economic driver,” Sikora said. “All we’re asking is that this be more carefully considered so arts groups have a chance to weigh in.”

Surveys and hearings

Larson said the intent behind having plans drawn up wasn’t to push a proposal through, but to have “a fact-based discussion” about possible development.

Don Daughters, who served on the committee with the Larson, didn’t want the selectmen backing away from the plans.

“You appointed the Schlumberger committee. We spent a year and a half. We polled the town, per your instructions, to bring back what this community wants. We came in with a conclusion,” he said. “...The next step was for us to do a professional study of this land.

“If we take these conclusions,” he said, “and thrown them out, and start another committee…”

“The Schlumberger Committee recommended an implementation committee,” Marconi said.

“For implementing a stage,” said Larson.

When discussion veered into a heated back-and-forth between advocates and opponents of the committee’s plan, Marconi intervened.

Larson emailed The Press summarizing suggestions he’d made, attempting to capsulize the thinking he’d heard.

“To find a way forward … Get a survey of the site since it has changed dramatically over the last year,” he said. “Form a small group of residents/arts folks to explore options that complement the arts organizations, are desired by residents and make an economic contribution to Ridgefield.”

Marconi summarized for board members his view of the agreed-upon course of action.

“Do public hearings in the fall, get input from people, appoint a committee,” he said. “… A simple stage, not a huge bandshell.”

He added, “I apologize for losing my cool.”

Selectman Steve Zemo brushed off that concern.

“A family discussion,” he said.