An old church on Wonson Street could become the centerpiece of the new Rocky Neck Cultural District, one of the first five such districts in the state.
The district encompasses the Rocky Neck Art Colony to Gorton's Theatre, home of the Gloucester Stage Co., at 267 East Main St. to the Gloucester Writer's Center at 126 East Main St., all in East Gloucester.
But the Rocky Neck Art Colony's plan to convert the church into a cultural center will take $700,000. The nonprofit group says it will need some help from the city's Community Preservation Act fund to make it happen.
The Art Colony has started the process to buy and renovate the former Christian Science Church at 6 Wonson St. Colony president Karen Ristuben says her group wants to take the 125-year-old building and make it the Cultural Center at Rocky Neck.
Ristuben said the center will have space for exhibitions, classes, lectures, and offices for the Art Colony. The colony is asking for $150,000 from the city's Community Preservation Act fund to get the project moving. The Art Colony will also pursue a $150,000 cultural facilities grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and raise the remaining $400,000 through private donations.
The Art Colony began the project last August, and plans to buy the 2,200-square-foot church for $450,000 and close on it by April 2013. Renovations, if everything moves according to the Art Colony's proposal, could wrap up by December 2013.
The project is something Ristuben believes people will get behind.
"(The church) was a building for the community, and we want to make sure it stays like that," she said.
The Cultural Center, she said, will serve as a welcome center for Rocky Neck and a meeting place for the community. It's a place that will do more than just art exhibitions, she said. It could, she added, serve as a lecture hall, or a place for the colony's artists in residence to teach as well as exhibit.
Plans for a cultural center came out of the colony's strategic planning process in 2010, Ristuben said. The colony started the center project last August, after two art colony members bought the former Christian Science Church.
Stephen and Kathleen Archer, colony members who live in Beverly, bought the building for $375,000 to take it off the market. The Archers couldn't be reached for comment, but Ristuben said the pair purchased the building so the colony could eventually renovate it. So far, the building's undergone some mild repairs, including taking out the pews.
According to the Art Colony's Community Preservation Act application, it will buy the building back for from the Archers for $450,000, which includes improvement, utility, and other costs the Archers took on.
The rest of the project's cost will go to renovations; the colony's application says it expects those renovations to conclude by the end of 2013.
"A dedicated permanent space to host cultural events is one important missing piece in the quest to bring Rocky Neck and Gloucester back to the standing it deserves in the cultural landscape of visual art," stated Susan Erony, an artist in residence at the Gloucester Writers Center, who submitted a letter in support of the project.
Other artists and residents stated they supported the project for what it would bring to the community, as an exhibition hall and as a community center.
"The idea of having a community center for all residents to be able to congregate, communicate and enjoy, as well as preserving and sharing the history that Rocky Neck has to offer, is a goal worth pursuing," wrote Richard and Suzanne Audette, of 38 Rocky Neck Ave.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.