Northampton fire inspector orders Bombyx to shut down live indoor music, center leaders seek explanation

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-18-2023 9:26 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Staff and board members from the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity are meeting this morning with city officials to try to get answers for what Bombyx says is a bewildering turn of events: a sudden shutdown of live indoor music ordered by a city fire inspector.

The shutdown order, issued May 11 by Capt. Mark Curtin, fire prevention officer for the Northampton Fire Department, forced Bombyx to cancel a weekend festival May 12-13 called Collider! Fest that featured multiple musicians, music workshops, a record fair, and some catered food service.

Cassandra Holden, Bombyx’s executive director, and Elizabeth Dunaway, president of the nonprofit group’s board of directors, estimate this sudden cancellation has cost the Florence center and its partners for Collider! Fest about $15,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. (The musicians were all paid and tickets were refunded; some of the musicians were able to play at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield the evening of May 12.)

It’s also not clear when live indoor music may resume at Bombyx; shows are currently scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday. A show on Tuesday night by one of the center’s resident community music groups, the Bombyx Brass Collective, was moved to the lawn outside the center.

More concerning, Holden and Dunaway say, is the fact that the shutdown order, apparently made because of Curtin’s concerns about inadequate fire prevention measures at the venue, comes after months of regular interaction with city officials about the center’s ongoing renovation efforts — during which those same officials have consistently approved their plans, Holden said.

“This whole situation is very confusing,” Holden said during an interview Tuesday at Bombyx. The shutdown order “seemed very random, and we don’t understand where it came from.”

“We’re really hoping to get some clarity at the [Thursday] meeting,” Holden said.

That meeting has been organized by Alan Wolf, chief of staff for Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, and is expected to include members of the city’s Fire and Building departments and other officials including city councilors.

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“We want to work with Bombyx to be sure they can be open and operate in a safe manner, in compliance with all state and local codes,” Wolf said in a phone call this week. “We all want them to succeed.”

But Bombyx staff believe the center has been operating in a safe manner since opening in the fall of 2021, and they say both the city’s building inspector, Jonathan Flagg, and city planner Carolyn Misch have reviewed and approved all their plans so far. Nor has the Fire Department expressed any previous concerns to them about a lack of fire prevention measures, they say.

In a letter they sent to Curtin and several other city officials earlier this week, Holden and Dunaway wrote that part of the issue seems to be a difference in how Bombyx staff regard the center and how Curtin viewed it when he came by last week. Staff view Bombyx as a community arts center that also hosts live music, while Curtin appeared to view the space as a nightclub during his inspection.

The Bombyx Center is located in Florence’s historic Congregational Church, whose parishioners continue to use the sanctuary. The center is also home to the Beit Ahavah Reform Synagogue and the Cloverdale Preschool,while numerous other local groups, such as the Young@Heart Chorus, use the facility on a regular basis.

Art exhibits, public talks, educational workshops and other events are also a big part of the mix. This evening, for instance, Northampton’s International Language Institute is holding an annual event there, Giving Voice, that recognizes its immigrant students.

“We’re really like 33 Hawley,” said Dunaway, referring to the space downtown operated by the Northampton Community Arts Trust. “We’re a community arts and cultural center that also hosts live music. We’re not a nightclub. We don’t sell alcohol.”

According to a pie chart the Bombyx Center prepared as part of their letter to city officials, live music represented 4.4% of the center’s activities during the past six weeks of facility use.

The ‘shutdown’

Yet when Curtin came unannounced to Bombyx on May 11, Holden and Dunaway say, he referred to it as a “nightclub.” Curtin said he had come in response to a complaint, the two women say, though he did not say what the complaint was about or who made it.

After making what Holden says was a brief examination of the Bombyx sanctuary, where both live music and religious services take place, Curtin cited a lack of a sprinkler system and told Holden the center would have to reduce its capacity to 100 people (the center can accommodate a little over 300).

Then, Holden says, Curtin said the capacity would have to be reduced to 50 people, before “leaving abruptly saying that Bombyx was ‘shut down’ immediately,” as she and Dunaway outlined in their letter to Curtin and other city officials.

It was not clear at that time whether that meant the center was shut for all activities, Holden said. She noted that the the Rev. Marisa Egerstrom, the Congregational Church minister, and Rabbi Raquel Shira Kosovske of Beit Ahavah had to call the Fire Department separately to determine that they were, in fact, still permitted to host services in the sanctuary.

Curtin did not respond to a phone message from the Gazette. Flagg also did not respond to a phone message.

For his part, Wolf, who’s serving as the point person for the city’s overall response to the issue, said Bombyx falls into something of a gray area in defining exactly what it is. “Is it a nightclub? If it is, it needs a sprinkler system.”

He added that there’s been concern in New England about club safety ever since the notorious fire in 2003 at the Station Nightclub in Rhode Island, in which a pyrotechnic display at a rock concert touched off a fast-moving blaze that killed 100 people and injured another 230.

“Ultimately the city’s goal is to keep everyone safe, and it’s up to businesses to be in compliance with all building codes and requirements,” Wolf said. “The city does its best to keep up with all of this.”

He added, “We want [visitors] to Bombyx to be safe, and we want Cassandra to be able to keep doing what she’s been doing.”

In their letter to city officials, Bombyx detailed a long list of renovations and improvements they’ve made to the property since beginning its management there in the fall of 2021, including electrical upgrades, repairing the sanctuary floor, and (currently) installing air conditioning. The letter says they’ve also received a $79,000 grant to install fire suppression and ventilation systems, as well as plumbing upgrades, in the center’s kitchen.

All told, the center has received almost $350,000 in grants so far to improve its facilities, Bombyx says.

In addition, Holden said it’s Bombyx’s understanding with the city that a full sprinkler system in the sanctuary is not required until they fully complete their purchase of the building from the Congregational Church — the agreement calls for this to be done by 2028 — or if they construct any major additions to the existing buildings.

“We are making steady improvements, but we can’t do them all at once,” she said.

Holden and Dunaway acknowledge the center has fielded some complaints about noise and parking during live music events. But they say they’re working to address those issues and don’t believe they’re connected to the current shutdown order.

In the end, Holden says she hopes the city looks favorably on their effort to help the local economy by bringing people to the area for live music, and to serve as a community resource for all the different groups that use the center.

Bombyx, Dunaway noted, has also been buoyed by wishes of support from residents and elected officials — and also “inundated” by questions of what happened last week, which is why the center has now spoken publicly about the issue.

“I think we all want to make this work,” Holden said. “Hopefully [the meeting] will show us a path forward.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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