Middletown Residents Worried About Wesleyan’s Plans To Close Green Street Arts Center Next Year

Wesleyan University is winding down programs at the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center with plans to close the facility next summer, deciding it cannot maintain the operational expenses there with an unreliable funding outlook.

Green Street has been a progressive enclave in the city's North End since it opened in 2005, providing valuable arts and music education for children in some of Middletown's poorest families. The announcement has alarmed North End residents and advocates who fear the often-overlooked neighborhood will be devastated if it loses one of its best sources of stability.

Wesleyan said when the center opened 12 years ago it was supposed to eventually become self-sufficient, but that vision never materialized as arts dollars have become increasingly scarce in the state and are likely to dry up even more in the next few years.

"This was a difficult decision and follows a year during which we attempted to find other financial support and partnerships for the activities of the center," Wesleyan said in a statement. "We will be reaching out to families who use Green Street about the change and assist them with finding services going forward. We will also work with the Wesleyan students and faculty members who dedicate their time and talents to Green Street to find other volunteer and employment opportunities. We plan to find ways to continue the most successful elements of Green Street programming — just not in a physical building."

Wesleyan spent $2.6 million renovating the former school building, providing a place where its students and faculty interact with the community through the arts. The city owns the property, providing a $1 per year lease that requires Wesleyan to oversee all operations and pay for almost all of the upkeep. Built in 1872, the building began as the Johnson School before being purchased by St. Sebastian Church to become a Catholic school.

The facility has offered a variety of arts programs in its 12 years, including unique theater, comedy, hip-hop recording and performance art options alongside traditional music, art and Shakespeare programs.

More recently Green Street has been running its after-school program, providing music and art education in the afternoons for about 60 children each semester. It has a science summer camp for girls running now, and recently held a math instruction training seminar for teachers.

Families pay tuition, but can qualify for subsidies and scholarships based on need.

In the last few months Wesleyan informed its staff that with its lease with the city ending in July 2018, it would start to "wind down" operations and look for other ways to maintain a presence in the North End.

Wesleyan's plan in opening Green Street was to find new funding sources to support the arts programs there within a few years. But more than a decade in, "sustainability has proven elusive." The university has put more than $4 million toward programs, with "a significant percentage" going to overhead expenses, said Wesleyan spokeswoman Lauren Rubenstein.

Once known primarily for crime, poverty and derelict housing, the North End has steadily improved its reputation and the Green Street center was an early part of that ongoing turnaround. It's a local gem, a source of neighborhood pride and an example of how far the community has come, advocates of the center said .

North End residents at a community meeting earlier this month said closing Green Street would be a major loss.

"This is like the city trying to close Macdonough [elementary school], this would leave a void in our community," said North End resident Barbara Humble. "It's hard enough that day care has always been an issue [for local families], but to have something in our community that provides a service to our community, it's become a safe haven for some of the kids."

Humble was one of nearly 40 who attended the meeting. Residents and business owners said they'd like to see the city step in or find other ways to keep services like the after-school program, which provides arts opportunities for kids who otherwise might not have the chance to take lessons outside of school.

"There are tangible pieces like the loss of the after-school program and there are pieces that aren't so tangible," said Precious Price, the North End Action Team director. "People feel strongly about the reputation of the North End, that having these programs there provides some positivity for all of Middletown when the consensus is there's not much around the city we're known for. But we disagree with that. There's a very strong pride in the North End, people in the North End love the community and I don't think they perceive it as the 'outside' of Middletown as some people do."

The center has been a valuable resource for the North End community as a frequent host of evening community meetings and events like candidate forums for area residents. Price said it's a community hub that has filled a number of roles whether it's the location for evening neighborhood meetings or a host for first-time homeownership workshops.

Price said residents are very worried about losing a valuable connection with Wesleyan and losing opportunities for teenagers.

"They're worried about losing a whole generation of kids who have so much potential but don't have the opportunity to do much," she said. "What is the alternative to the youth who are in those programs when it closes? This is as successful as Middletown has been toward creating a youth center."

Officials said Green Street's closingis a financial issue. But with about a year until the planned closure, there is hope that a new approach could save some of the services there.

The center has an annual budget of about $500,000, though more than half of that is paid for with grants, said Rob Rosenthal, a Wesleyan professor who oversees Green Street as the director of the Allbritton Center, a civic engagement center at the university.

Rosenthal told residents that the center opened as a partnership between Wesleyan, the city of Middletown, the state and the North End neighborhood. Since then it's been almost exclusively supported by Wesleyan, he said.

"It hasn't been a full partnership with the city," Rosenthal said.

He said Wesleyan has been working to keep funding in place for the last few years, and "had different attempts to make it financially viable" but that the university could not continue at its current funding level.

"Wesleyan has vowed to continue funding community work in Middletown, including in the North End, but it doesn't have the money to support Green Street at the level it's been supporting Green Street for the last 10 or 12 years," Rosenthal said. "There's interest from Wesleyan and in the community in figuring out what else can be done with Green Street. Is there some other collaboration that could maintain it so it can go on?"

In an application for a grant from the Middletown Commission on the Arts earlier this year, Green Street's staff said it was applying for $8,000 to pay for operating expenses needed to keep the programs running.

The application listed a $516,972 budget with a $161,865 direct contribution from the university, $255,007 from grants and donations and the remaining $92,100 from tuition.

The application says the MCA has supported Green Street programs over the past six years from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars at a time adding up to a little under $20,000 since 2011, including this year's contribution. The application said the $8,000, which was later approved, would pay for costs like supplies and normal maintenance.

Several residents on July 19 said they had heard a rumor that the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen would move into the Green Street building once Wesleyan moves out.

Mayor Daniel Drew said that the city has discussed that plan, which could include moving the soup kitchen and administrative offices and personnel into the building. He said that idea is in the "early stages" and that "nothing's a done deal yet."

He said there haven't been discussions about the city contributing funding to keep the Green Street center running past the lease expiration, but said city leaders share the residents' concerns about the loss of arts programs for children in the community.

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