Town Hall space crunch squeezes theater group's lease
Published 5:03 am, Wednesday, April 15, 2015
A lack of space at Town Hall -- and a planned "comprehensive professional space analysis" to see what can be done to resolve the problem -- led First Selectman Jim Marpe to suggest a new lease between the town and Westport Community Theatre be limited to only a year.
The theater group has leased space in the basement of Town Hall for the past 25 years, and the most recent lease, which expires June 30, was for 10 years, Marpe said, noting that previous leases have also included a clause for "recapturing the premise for municipal use, if needed."
"I'm limiting it to one year with a one-year extension," Marpe told members of the Planning and Zoning Commission at a recent meeting. The lease needed a positive 8-24 referral from the commission, according to a state statute concerning leasing public property, said Larry Bradley, the town's planning and zoning director.
The proposed annual rent for the new, one-year lease is $12,900, Marpe said. The current year's rent -- the last year of the 10-year lease -- is $12,500, he added. The 10-year lease had called for an annual increase of approximately 3 percent and the new lease proposal reflects a continuation of the 3 percent increase, Marpe said.
The town leases not only the main theater, which holds 185 people, but also several other rooms including a box office and practice and dressing rooms, Marpe explained.
The theater group uses a lounge area commonly referred to as "the green room," which also is used daily by Town Hall employees during breaks and for lunch. It's also sometimes used for municipal meetings, Marpe said.
In all, about 3,600 square feet in the Town Hall building is leased to the WCT.
Marpe said he plans to have the space study done in the coming year, adding that such a survey has not been done in recent memory. "We have some money in the capital forecast to do it," he said.
Marpe said some town departments are currently working out of other buildings because of the lack of space "when they could be here at Town Hall."
He said the space survey would help achieve "better integration of services." Right now, he said, all space in Town Hall "has been utilized -- including closets."
"Everything the first selectman said is right on target," said Robert Watts, WCT president. "We are in that space ultimately on many occasions but we do have a schedule for the whole season" that lists rehearsal and performance dates, he added. "If space is needed for a meeting, we could cancel a rehearsal" if that would be "a deciding factor in whether the space is recaptured or not -- if that's a deciding factor for us to stay in."
"I, as much as anyone in Westport, love the performing arts," Marpe told the commission. He said his goal "is to do the right thing."
"I would be remiss in my role as first selectman if I didn't examine the highest and best use of space at Town Hall given the restriction" on space there, he added.
P&Z Vice Chairman Jack Whittle told Marpe he is "glad you're taking it away from a 10-year lease."
During discussion on a motion for approving the lease, David Lessing, commission member, suggested including a time limit of one year for the completion of the space study.
"I'm not a fan of locking the first selectman into getting a report done within a year," said Whittle.
Commission members set a target of June 2016 for completing the study, adding they "encouraged" Marpe to have it finished by that date.
The lease was unanimously approved and now goes to the Board of Finance for its approval.