Selectmen consider limiting arts programming at South Union School

There are some who say the historic South Union School — home of the Recreation Department, Facilities Department, and Southborough Arts Council — should be shut down because it’s a drain on the town. Recreation Director Doreen Ferguson is not one of those people.

“There is so much more that could be done with this building.” Ferguson said last week.

The Recreation Department currently shares the main space with the Arts Council, which Ferguson last night told Selectmen limits her ability to offer programming. She said she could raise another $12K in revenue each year if she was allowed to more fully use the building.

The Arts Council has occupied South Union School for many years and was originally responsible for its upkeep. But a broken elevator and other complications derailed their fundraising efforts. Three years ago they told the town they couldn’t pay. The town assumed financial responsibility for the building and moved in the Recreation and Facilities Departments.

While recognizing the “intrinsic value” the arts play in a community, Selectmen John Rooney said it may be time to limit the Art Council’s use of the space in favor of programs that bring in money.

“It’s a question of priorities. If there’s an opportunity to generate $12K of revenue, I can’t in good conscience say let’s forget about that,” Rooney said. “At the end of the day (the Arts Council) is not putting anything into the bottom line.”

Both Rooney and Selectman Bill Boland said they wanted to speak with the Arts Council before making any decisions.

You can read another take on last night’s discussion in this article by the Metrowest Daily News.

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Joe Mercadante
12 years ago

These discussions are often presented as though the Rec Dept and the Arts Council are on even footing. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Rec Dept is fully supported by the town, with paid staff. I have heard claims that they generate enough revenue to cover their costs, but I am skeptical. Even if it’s true (and I would be happy to be convinced), it’s beside the main point.

The Arts Council is 100% volunteer. Other than the ability to use space that was “broken” and then increasingly unavailable, they get no meaningful support from the town. If the town supported the Arts Center the same way it supports the Rec Dept., the former could also be developed to the point where it generates more revenue than it costs.

There is no reason why the Rec Dept and the Arts Council should be at odds. They should complement one another. But the town, initially by screwing up the elevator (making the Arts Center all but unusable under the law *) and later by impinging on the space, and then by officially declaring that unlike the Rec Dept, the Arts Council is NOT a town department, has all but killed the “Arts Center at Southborough” as we knew it.

* I suspect that people hear about the “broken elevator” and wonder, ‘what’s the big deal – so people had to walk up two flights of stairs.’ It doesn’t work that way in a public building. In short, the broken elevator made it illegal to do most of what the Arts Center would have done with the space had it been working. This period of non-activity (due to the town’s inability to deal with their own building) is what decimated the Arts Council from a financial perspective. There is more to it in terms of the time, effort, energy, and funds the Arts Council sunk into the building itself, but that’s another discussion.

Yes, we are in a major fiscal crisis now, but these problems and policy decisions go back to the boom years.

“At the end of the day (the Arts Council) is not putting anything into the bottom line.” Selectman Rooney wasn’t there at the time, but if the town had down the right thing, this wouldn’t currently be the case.

12 years ago
Reply to  Joe Mercadante

[Ed note: This comment was removed because the email address was determined to be invalid. Carol, if you’d like to contact me with a working email address, I’d be happy to restore your comment.]

Joe Mercadante
12 years ago
Reply to  Carol

Carol – I can’t speak for others, but I am not at all opposed to the mission and the programs the Rec Dept offers. In my original post, I suggested they should complement one another. I want my kids to have opportunities to play AND to create.

My argument is not ‘less support for Rec,’ it’s ‘reasonable and fair support for Arts.’ I likely wouldn’t have even mentioned the Rec Dept if the Board hadn’t used them as justification to further marginalize the Arts Council.

12 years ago

There is not much more to say than close it. If you want to support the arts and you want ot support day car and you want to support this and that in town then pay for it out of your own pocket. I mean jsut the thought of another park or kiddie pool just puts everyone ove the top. We have enough and enough already.

Al Hamilton
12 years ago


I think it is appropriate to review the bidding on the Arts Center.

1. It is a town owned building
2. The town spent about $700k to do some upgrades which included a parking lot and an elevator.
3. The town gave the Arts Center the use of the building with the understanding that it would operate and maintain the building.
4. The elevator broke down within a year or so of completion and remained broken
5. The town paid to repair the elevator.
6. Fuel prices rose and the Arts center did not have enough money to pay the $1500/week heating bill. The Arts Center asked Advisory for a reserve transfer to cover the heating season and the Town took over operating and maintenance support.
7. Town departments (Rec and Facilities moved in to part of the building)
8. The town spent nearly $300,000 on historical recreation of the windows. Go look at them and see if we got our moneys worth.

The Arts Center should probably never have taken on maintenance and operation of this rotting hulk. I suspect that another million dollars could easily disappear into this money pit.

Joe Mercadante
12 years ago

Al – Whether it’s the right building or not is a fair question – I wasn’t around when that decision was made. My main point is that the playing field in terms of which departments/organizations are and are not supported is not level. It often boils down to who is best at playing politics. My secondary point is that if it had been supported properly, the Arts Center could have generated far more revenue than it has. Enough revenue to justify the building? Perhaps not, but the Arts Council didn’t create that problem – that’s a long term town planning issue that just got kicked down the road. It could perhaps be sufficient to justify that same amount of space in a properly maintained modern building.

Now that the town appears as though they will for all intents and purposes throw the Arts Council out, they won’t have them to blame for the money pit that is that building, but the problem will endure.

12 years ago


Its sad to see any volunteer driven organization fail but if the volunteers themselves no longer have an interest in the Arts Council, why should the taxpayers underwrite this?

There are too many people out of work in this town and taxes are already too high.

How can anyone justify telling me I have to pay taxes to support a group that isn’t even supported by its own supporters??????? Why should I pay more for a group that supports a handful of people from many towns, not just Southborough?

Why are the schools telling us it is so critical that they need electronic white boards for teaching? Is that money more important than hiring another teacher and keeping the class size smaller?

I am dreaming of the day we have some elected officials, some school administrators and some folks like Joe Mercadante stop saying the way to solve every issue is to raise my taxes!

Joe Mercadante
12 years ago
Reply to  Dreamer

Please – If you are going to post and criticize, use your name. I don’t always agree with Al Hamilton, but I appreciate his passion and respect that he uses his real name; because then we can have an above-the-board discussion.

Please stop putting words into my “mouth.” I am not suggesting raising taxes. I am criticizing poor management in the past, politics as usual, and hypocrisy in the way funds are distributed and organizations are supported.

carrie alpert
12 years ago
Reply to  Dreamer

the white boards are in fact ENO boards and many of them have been purchased through SEF (that means we the community have purchased them and they did not come out of the budget so settle down) and the original ones at Neary were garnered through the hard work of 2 of the 4th grade teachers who wrote a grant request for them.
the rest of them are in fact a necessity to move forward and keep pace with technology and perhaps you should see one in action–watch a classroom use one and how the kids learn and manipulate it. I kind of think of it as an enormous educational Google with a curriculum track built in.
as far as the Rec Dept. is concerned Doreen has done a remarkable job with the RAP programs and keeping pace with what interests the kids as well as offering extra classes throughout the year and I know longer have little ones but it always seems as though there is something for them to do every month. If the Arts Council got out there more perhaps it could do the same for its organization.

Joe Mercadante
12 years ago
Reply to  carrie alpert

“as far as the Rec Dept. is concerned … there is something for them to do every month. If the Arts Council got out there more perhaps it could do the same for its organization.”

Agreed. And if the town had supported them the way they supported the Rec Dept. (back when there was the means to do so), the Arts Council would have done just that. That’s the point.

12 years ago

[Ed note: Comment removed at commenter’s request]

Frank Crowell
12 years ago

I was at the TM when the Arts Council was given use of the old high school. A citizen made a suggestion that maybe the building could also be used by the seniors (this was before the current Senior Center). Several Arts Council members shot this down very quickly not wanting to share the building at all. I wonder if there is room for Arts Council activities at the Senior Center.

The decade of 2000’s might be thought of as the golden era for Southborough TM when we most all spending was passed.

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