THE ABRUPT announcement Monday that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts would be immediately vacating a downtown New Bedford building, where it’s been housed for 22 years, has sent an unwelcome jolt through the Whaling City and entire South Coast region.
Nearly everyone seems to lament the sudden turn of events, and says the program’s exit will be a huge blow to New Bedford’s arts and culture scene and the city economy overall.
“We’re devastated like everyone else,” said Mark Fuller, UMass Dartmouth’s chancellor, who broke the news to the community in a letter released on Monday. “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s not very disappointed with where we find ourselves today.”
But there’s little agreement, amid the finger-pointing that has broken out, on who is to blame for that situation, which will see the program’s 200 students relocated to the university’s main campus in Dartmouth.
Since 2001, the arts college has been housed in a former New Bedford department store – the Star Store, an example of the kind of creative reuse of downtown spaces that emptied out amid the rise of suburban malls and decline of central business districts. The arts program had a 20-year lease to operate its programs in the building, and got support from an annual $2.7 million line item over that period in the state budget.
The agreement included an option for UMass Dartmouth to buy the building for $1 at the end of the lease. That’s exactly what state Sen. Mark Montigny, who helped lead the effort to bring the arts program to the city more than two decades ago, and other local officials wanted to see happen. But it never did.
Montigny became so concerned over university foot dragging on the issue that a year ago he successfully got a rider attached last to the fiscal 2023 budget requiring the university to exercise the purchase option.
Fuller says the University of Massachusetts Building Authority tried to execute the purchase option in August 2022, but the building owner raised “legal objections.”
Neither the UMass Building Authority nor building owner Paul Downey returned messages Tuesday afternoon.
The state continued to make rent payments to Downey after the lease expired in 2021, but that funding stream ended with the 2024 budget signed earlier month by Gov. Maura Healey. The House had maintained the annual $2.7 million appropriation in its 2024 budget proposal, but the Senate left it out, as did the final spending plan negotiated between the two branches.
“Budgets have priorities associated with them, and we just didn’t make the cut when it went through the Senate,” said Fuller, who said he had been hoping the funding would be included in the final budget.
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said Fuller called him only “minutes before his public announcement” on Monday to tell him the university would be leaving the building. “To say that I reacted with surprise and dismay is an understatement,” Mitchell said in a statement.
He said all the “state entities and legislators” had several years to develop a plan for the acquisition of the building and funding of its ongoing costs. “The notion that the university’s decision ultimately hinged on whether a particular line item was included in the new state budget strains credulity,” Mitchell said.
Sen. Michael Rodrigues, who represents neighboring communities and helms the Senate budget committee, declined to comment yesterday. But he told The New Bedford Light that UMass is responsible for the current situation.
“The bottom line is the university doesn’t want the building,” he told the nonprofit news site. “If the university wanted it to happen it would happen. It’s that simple.”
Though he pointed to the legal issues that arose when the state tried to exercise the purchase option on the Star Store, Fuller, the UMass Dartmouth chancellor, acknowledged that taking ownership of the 125,000 square foot property would present a “huge challenge” to the school. He said the building would require $1.5 million to $2 million a year in annual support for operating expenses and capital maintenance projects.
Montigny said in a statement that the state and university failed to meet their “basic responsibility” to execute the building purchase and stop “squandering” public tax dollars on rent payments. His office said the state would have provided support for ongoing building costs, pointing to an $8 million authorization in a 2018 bond bill among other potential funding sources.
“This is a disaster. It’s a terrible thing,” Tony Sapienza, the president of the board of the New Bedford Economic Development Council, said of the announced exit of the UMass program. He said the visual arts college has been a “catalyst of the arts and culture rebirth in New Bedford.” He said the first floor gallery space in the building was one more addition to the city’s burgeoning arts scene, which includes the Zeiterion Theater across the street.
Sapienza said the 200 students that use the building also make a big contribution to the downtown economy and sense of vitality that has returned to the city. “Students eat, they drink, they participate in the community in so many important ways,” said Sapienza, who also chairs the board of directors of the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Though UMass Dartmouth says it’s moving quickly to relocate the arts programs to its main campus before the fall semester starts in less than four weeks, Sapienza said he and other leaders in the city aren’t giving up. He said it’s not too late to get Gov. Maura Healey and other state leaders to recognize the vital role the state can play in New Bedford by figuring out a way to reverse the decision. He pointed to all the money that has flowed into the state through federal COVID relief funding and other sources that could be tapped if there’s the will to do it.
“This is something that could be done,” he said.