March 19, 2018
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Fitchburg State remaking theater as new community, incubator space

Courtesy/Fitchburg State University
Fitchburg State University renderings show the Theater Block building on the right, which sits across Main Street from City Hall, which is vacant but is slated for a $23.5-million renovation.
Courtesy/Fitchburg State University
Fitchburg State University renderings show the Theater Block building, which is vacant but is slated for a $23.5-million renovation.
Courtesy/Fitchburg State University
Fitchburg State University President Richard Lapidus (center) describes the Theater Block project in January to Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale (left) and Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash (right).

For more than three decades, a theater on Fitchburg's Main Street has sat vacant as a lost opportunity to help revitalize a stretch of downtown seeming too much like a ghost town.

Now, Fitchburg State University is taking on an ambitious project at the Theater Block, to in the short term, bring new educational and entrepreneurship space to the sprawling building, and later, new storefronts.

The final piece will bring life back to a 1,700-seat theater to house productions for the school and community groups.

Courtesy/Fitchburg State University
The Theater Block building on the right, which sits across Main Street from City Hall, is vacant but is slated for a $23.5-million renovation.

Richard Lapidus took on the redevelopment after becoming Fitchburg State president in 2015 and hearing from those at the university who wanted to see the school focus more on entrepreneurship and a more interdisciplinary approach.

"We had also talked with trustees about the university being a good steward in its home city," Lapidus said of the mission.

With that, Fitchburg State bought the dilapidated building the following year for $350,000.

A shared community space

Just about a mile from campus, the development will be Fitchburg State's first presence of its kind in downtown Fitchburg. A 7,000-square-foot second-floor space is due to be complete at the end of the spring semester to include space for the university's video game design program – the only such public-university program in the state – and entrepreneurship programs.

"Part of the effort is to convene groups of people," Lapidus said. "The university, I think, naturally has that role anyway, and now we have an opportunity to do that in a different location with a new audience."

The $2-million first phase is meant to bring in the community into a shared open-floor workspace typically existing only in larger cities. University and city officials see the lab as a potential draw for a stretch of Fitchburg with relatively few workers today.

"It's very exciting stuff," Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale said. "We're anticipating that that whole area is going to explode with interest."

NewVue Communities, a Fitchburg nonprofit that assists businesses and owns affordable housing, is a partner in the entrepreneurship lab and plans to offer programming there. Marc Dohan, NewVue's executive director, said teaming with Fitchburg State was the only way to make such an effort possible.

"It's a great opportunity, and it's something that neither of us could quite do on our own," Dohan said, adding that he sees such a center offering a critical boost to those looking to start their own business.

"You're not just renting, and you're not just part of culture," he said. "You're actually learning to do things."

Creating a new downtown

The Theater Block development is set to come together with two other neighboring projects, giving officials hope for more vitality downtown.

NewVue Communities is planning renovation of the vacant former B.F. Brown School just a block away on Academy Street to become 50 to 60 residential units. The project, which still requires permitting and financing, will be aimed at housing for artists.

City Hall sits directly across Main Street from the Theater Block but has been closed since 2012 when a support truss in the roof was deemed a structural hazard. It is slated to be redeveloped in a $23.5-million project.

City Hall workers were relocated to a former manufacturing building a few blocks away on Boulder Drive. That's left two key buildings directly across Main Street from one another empty.

Fitchburg city councilors approved the renovation project last month, with the city also taking over an adjacent former Bank of America branch for offices.

"I want to get into City Hall as soon as we can," DiNatale said. "We're kind of bursting at the seams over here. It's not an appropriate city hall."

The return of city workers to upper Main Street should happen around the time when six retail spaces in the Theater Block become available. The university doesn't yet have firm ideas for how the spaces may be used, but officials have talked about restaurants or uses that complement the lab space upstairs, Lapidus said.

"That's another component of economic development, if we can provide that kind of space," DiNatale said of the affect the incubator space should have. "Born out of those ideas are commerce and jobs, and that's what we need."

Eventually, the Theater Block is set to include a renovation of the theater itself, a 28,000-square-foot space in the rear of the building that hasn't been used in decades. The university has hired an architect and consultants to help plan for that space, and Lapidus said the school hopes a reborn theater can help the performing arts community in North Central Massachusetts.

Costs and a timetable for the theater renovation aren't yet in place.

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