Proposal to turn old Plymouth church into theater with town money elicits cheers, concern

Fall Town Meeting is being asked to spend $650,000 in community preservation money to buy and convert an historic downtown church into a theater for use by the Greater Plymouth Performing Arts Center.
Fall Town Meeting is being asked to spend $650,000 in community preservation money to buy and convert an historic downtown church into a theater for use by the Greater Plymouth Performing Arts Center.
PPlymouth Community Preservation Committee

With dollars tight, local officials everywhere are weighing requests to tap available resources more carefully.

In Plymouth, Town Meeting on Oct. 20 will be asked to spend $650,000 in community preservation money to buy and convert a historic downtown church into a theater for use by the Greater Plymouth Performing Arts Center.  

Proponents say a theater in the building, originally a Methodist Episcopal Church built in the 1880s, will broaden offerings and draw consumers downtown. But with other worthy projects also hoping for funding, some ask whether the theater deserves top-priority status.

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The Board of Selectmen unanimously supported the theater proposal in a recent vote, but two members voiced strong reservations.

“I love the idea of a performing arts center, but I was very disappointed that, with 18 applications for funding, this was on top,” Selectwoman Belinda Brewster said after the vote.

Brewster said a proposed restoration of Burial Hill, requesting $750,000 to repair 1,000 crumbling headstones and refurbish fencing, has been passed over in the Community Preservation Committee’s last two funding rounds.

“I would have thought Burial Hill would be a higher priority,” she said. “It’s one of the town’s most historic locations, and it’s getting to the point where it will be unsalvageable.”

Brewster said the performing arts group projects $36,000 in annual revenue. “That would be enough to pay for a mortgage,” she said. “It’s not always taxpayer money that needs to be used for these things.”

The Town Meeting article seeks $365,000 to buy the property from Congregation Beth Jacob, which has used the building as a community center, and $285,000 for installation of handicapped-accessible bathrooms, a sprinkler system, and another emergency exit.

During the selectmen’s discussion, member Kenneth Tavares said he supported the theater venture but warned he would withdraw support if an engineer’s report, expected before Town Meeting, concludes the building needs structural work.

Tavares also expressed concern over the town’s financial risk. “If this doesn’t work, we’ve got money into a purchase and money into renovations, but we won’t have a building you could convert easily,” he said.

Fall Town Meeting will consider two other community preservation proposals along with the church purchase: a $3 million land acquisition off Old Sandwich Road that will protect town wells, and the $185,000 purchase of land abutting the town’s Center Hill Preserve. 

If all three succeed, the Community Preservation Fund will be drawn down to less than $200,000, a situation that worries those hoping to have Burial Hill’s needs addressed.

Community Preservation Committee chairman Bill Keohan said his panel will look for ways to rebuild the account.

“Our strategy will be to get grants for the land purchase to replenish the funds,” he said, promising the Burial Hill project will be considered “at a future Town Meeting.”

Keohan expressed enthusiasm for the theater project, saying it will provide a performing arts venue similar to the highly successful visual arts center operating in two North Street buildings purchased with preservation money in 2007. It will also carry a restriction requiring historic elements be preserved, he said.

The former church’s interior seats 200 and features a 55-foot stage. Keohan said it will easily convert to a theater. “The acoustics are great,” he said. “You can stand on the stage and be heard at the back.”

Greater Plymouth Performing Arts Center president Robert Hollis told selectmen the theater will enhance Plymouth’s downtown.

“Something will be going on every weekend of the year,” he said. “It will be something we can be proud of, and something people will come from outside to go to.”

The property has a distinguished place in the town’s past, according to historian James Baker. Congregation Beth Jacob has owned the site since the late 1970s, but the building was originally a Methodist Episcopal Church in bustling Court Square. Its design, featuring “austere white woodwork and soaring spires,” reflects classic New England style, Baker wrote in a narrative.

“The Methodist Episcopal Church greatly enhanced the appearance of Court Square, and it soon became a favorite landmark, appearing on postcards and being featured in Plymouth town directories and guidebooks,” wrote Baker. “The loss of a structure such as the Methodist Church would seriously diminish Plymouth as a historical attraction.”

Selectman John Mahoney, also a Community Preservation Committee member, said he thinks the Beth Jacob Community Center purchase will be one of “the town’s successes.”

“It will help provide a much-needed venue to counter the proliferation of bars and restaurants in downtown,” Mahoney said. “With 90 to 100 people spilling out of the theater on a Friday or Saturday night, I think it will have a very positive economic effect on that area.”