Group aims to open non-profit arts center at Old Southworth Library in the fall

Jun 20, 2018

A non-profit group with a vision to transform the Old Southworth Library into a thriving arts center hopes to begin programming in the fall if it is successful in securing a lease of the town-owned building.

Officials from the Dartmouth Cultural Center, Inc. received the surprise news at its June 19 meeting that the final request for proposals has been issued by the town for a lease of the historic 404 Elm Street building.

It comes as the organization, which had successfully convinced town officials to hold off on deciding the building’s fate last year, has formulated a comprehensive plan for its proposed arts center.

That plan covers everything from short-term fundraising goals to long-term restoration projects, center officials said at the meeting.

In short-term goals, the group hopes to build a network of artists, patrons, and instructors to facilitate programming. Kathleen DelSordo, the group’s facilitator, said it already has between eight and nine artists booked to host programming in the fall. She is also communicating with Dartmouth Public Schools, the Coastal Neighbors Network, and South Coast artists groups for other sources of collaboration.

The group is putting the finishing touches on a paid membership structure, with varying levels proposed. The request for proposals starts the lease at $18,000 for year one.

Other ideas to generate necessary funding to sustain itself and the building are artist and gallery fees. The group also learned it can raise funds through in-kind services as well.

One of the organization's top long-term goals is fixing handicap accessibility issues. The building lacks accessible entrances and bathrooms.

An architect will study a possible historical restoration of the former library, which dates back to 1889. Many items and features on the building are not historically accurate, like carpeting, possibly the roof, and drainage and other exterior features. The group is working closely with the Community Preservation Committee on the study.

The effort to save the building began in 2016. Town Meeting voters rejected a sale of the building, prompting a committee to be formed to examine potential reuses of the building. At the same time, community members sharing a concern about the building came together to figure out a plan to save it.

In 2017, the town issued three requests for proposals -- one for a sale, and two for leases. The town received one response for a sale and one response for a lease by the organization. The decision to award a lease or sale was postponed after organization officials asked for more time to formulate a comprehensive plan and work through zoning issues that were raised.

Requests for proposals are due on July 10. Co-town administrator Greg Barnes said the Select Board should be ready to award a lease at its July 23 meeting.

In the meantime, the group is still looking for volunteers interested in supporting the project. The library building will also be open during the Padanaram Summer Festival, scheduled for July 28.

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