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Arts trust inks deal to convert Universal Health and Fitness building in Northampton into community arts center

A performance at the Northampton Center for the Arts ballroom in 2010.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

A performance at the Northampton Center for the Arts ballroom in 2010. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »

The Northampton Community Arts Trust, a nonprofit formed in 2010 to help preserve the downtown arts scene, signed a purchase and sale agreement Thursday to acquire a building currently housing Universal Health and Fitness at 33 Hawley St. The goal is to convert the 25,000-square-foot property into performance space, offices, galleries, classrooms and other artistic uses.

Though the deal is only in the preliminary stages, members of the arts trust say they’re happy and relieved that the search for a community arts space, which had run into previous disappointments and dead ends, has finally borne fruit.

“I’m pretty darn happy at how all this has worked out,” said Richard Wagner, president of the arts trust’s board of directors. “We were lucky to work with an owner who was very receptive to our proposal ... and I think this deal is a real testament to members of the board who have been grinding away on this issue for so long — they just kept at it.”

Wagner said the deal with Liz Cole, the owner of Universal Health and Fitness, came together just in the past month, after arts trust members learned she might be considering relocating her business and approached her about taking over the Hawley Street space.

Cole could not be reached for comment, but she said in statement that she was excited to be part of the venture.

“The building is going to be put to a great use, one which I think is important for the community. For me personally and the business, it will be a big change, but I expect to be able to continue in a different location in town.”

Wagner would not reveal any of the financial details of the purchase and sale agreement, saying only that the trust had arranged for loans to pay the initial costs of acquiring the building. The trust plans to start a capital campaign and seek grants, corporate gifts and other sources of funding to complete the transaction and then to begin converting the space to arts usage.

He said that over the next few months, the trust will gather ideas from the community on how the space might be used and will also meet with architects to look at how the building might be reconfigured. The group’s website is www.northamptonartstrust.org.

Penny Burke, director of the Northampton Center for the Arts, which lost its longtime space on South Street at the Sullivan Square building this month after its 30-year lease expired, said the Hawley Street building likely has the best “raw potential” for varied arts use of any of the buildings the trust has looked at during its search, which included First Churches, the Roundhouse Building and the former Union Station.

The arts trust also looked at the former St. John Cantius Church, also on Hawley Street, and, more recently, at the Florence Community Center, but neither of those spaces proved workable.

“We’ll have to put our heads together and really think about how we want to use this space, but we see a lot of possibilities,” Burke said. She is currently running the Center for the Arts, the producer of First Night Northampton, from rented office space on Strong Avenue. “We see it as something benefiting a lot of people — community artists will get a space here.”

She and Wagner envision the Hawley Street building having a black box theater with seating for 200 or more, a space that could be used for theater, film and other productions. The Center for the Arts would get permanent office space there, and other groups, like New Century Theatre, may also be interested in such an arrangement.

Lisa Thompson, director of the A.P.E. gallery downtown, says A.P.E. may consider staging some live performances at the Hawley Street property. “When we lost our space in Thornes Market, we lost our performance space, so this could be a real nice addition to our exhibitions,” she said.

Burke, who has spent the last several months breaking down the old Center for the Arts property — putting some equipment and furniture into storage, donating other items to other arts groups — said the deal for the Hawley Street property “feels like getting a great weight off our shoulders ... after looking so long for a new space, we knew this was an opportunity that had to be seized.”

Wagner said there’s no timeline for when the Hawley Street property might be transformed into a functioning arts space: “We’re just at the beginning of this.”

Nevertheless, he said he hoped it would be just the first step of an effort to preserve affordable, accessible downtown space for the arts and reverse a trend of ever-increasing rents driving artists and community art groups out of the city — much as the Center for the Arts was forced to leave its office and performance space.

“We want to make this a home to all, to as many people as possible,” he said. “It’s something that will be here for years to come.”

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