Forty years ago, the Shea Theater building in downtown Turners Falls was a shell about to collapse in on itself. But Montague leaders saw the building’s potential to boost the village’s economic fortunes and acquired the Shea. With help from grants, Montague rejuvenated the Avenue A landmark into the small downtown arts and cultural engine it has been since the 1980s.
In the past few years, a new Shea Theater board of directors has revitalized programming at the theater and the town has used state grants to update the building once again. Recently, Montague town officials and Shea staff showed off improvements and renovations to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, and state Senate President Stan Rosenberg. One grant paid for a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system, and another will also cover duct work for the HVAC.
Walter Ramsey, the Montague town planner, discussed the payoff from the investment: “The impact on downtown has been great,” Ramsey said. “The downtown restaurants love it when there’s a show.”
Ramsey said they chose the Shea to show off because the theater is also at the center of the revitalization of downtown Turners Falls. He said there’s a lot of positive energy in the space right now.
There are lessons to be learned from Montague’s experience with the Shea over the years. Jump across the river, and you can see Greenfield poised to capitalize in a similar way with the long-dormant First National Bank building.
Town officials dream of finally converting the 88-year-old Bank Row building, which has been vacant for half its life, into a downtown cultural center. Although about $1 million has been spent by the town and others to keep it from imploding from years of neglect, the art deco building has only been stabilized, and millions more in restoration and modernization may be needed to revive it.
The potential feels so much like the Shea four decades ago.
The plan is for a cultural center with flexible space — a place where there would be a black box theater, but also pop-up spaces for local artisans and special displays and activities in the heart of downtown — all imagined as part of a burgeoning creative economy of arts and culture.
The Greenfield Redevelopment Authority recently took ownership of the building, along with the responsibility to rejuvenate it. That’s a good sign, because it was the GRA that developed the town’s industrial park and managed to snag funding for a parking garage that downtown boosters have sought for decades. The hope is that the quasi-public development authority will find grants and investors to raise the millions needed for a new First National culture center.
Linda McInerney, artistic director of Greenfield-based nonprofit theater company Eggtooth Productions, has been working closely with the mayor’s office to develop plans for the building. That’s another good sign, because she is known for her energy and tenacity and dedication to the local arts scene.
There is much to do to revive the old bank, as Montague resurrected the Shea, and we hope that state officials like Polito and Rosenberg will see in Greenfield the potential for another economic development success story and lend it the help to make that happen.
This editorial first ran in The Recorder of Greenfield.