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Proposed Center plans go before Planning Board

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM Jules and Celine Gaudreau met with the Planning Board last week to begin the process of site plan approval for the Wilbraham Nature and Cultural Center (WNCC), to be built in Fountain Park.

Jules Gaudreau displayed an artistic rendering of what the proposed center would look like for the Planning Board, explaining that the plan has not changed since it was drafted two years ago. Detailed drawings of basement, first, second and third story floor plans were also displayed.

The basement would house a small black box theater as well as changing rooms and prop building and storage areas.

The first floor would hold 240 seats for a performance area as well as mens' and womens' lavatory facilities. It would also include a large exhibition space for local art and a reception area.

The second floor would hold a balcony of about 100 seats, some classrooms and additional storage. The top floor would not be fully developed, leaving space for future expansion.

Outside, the main entrance to the park would be shifted to the right of the house on the property, with a turnaround being built in front of the center and the parking lot being built behind. "For the parking lot, we need something serviceable and safe," Jules said.

Additionally, a small retention pond would be built behind the building, serving as a duck pond in the summer and an ice skating rink in the winter.

"We're looking for community input on the design of the building," Jules added. "We're looking for something that is New England as well as 21st century."

Once the presentation was finished, the Planning Board questioned Jules and Celine about certain aspects of the project. Patricia Ross, vice-chair, asked how something like this would work in Wilbraham. "This is not downtown," she stated.

"No, it isn't," Jules agreed, "but for some reason there is a perception of Springfield as a dangerous place. It will be an advantage having this in a suburban area."

Chair Christopher Leisey was more interested in the business side of the project. "Is it feasible to have an endowment for this every year?" he asked.

Jules answered by saying that the project would start out with money first and always make a profit. "At no point do I want the center to be in debt," he said. Nothing will be built until at least 40 percent of what is needed is raised, Jules said.

Celine added, "We've done our homework by looking at larger and smaller theaters and their business plans. This is the perfect size for this area." She also said that the WNCC is inundated by phone calls on a weekly basis by groups who already want to use the facility.

Ross stated that for this project to become a reality, zoning changes may be needed, as Fountain Park is in the middle of a residential area. John Pearsall, Planning and Community Development Director, added that there were a lot of restrictions with the property and advised the Gaudreaus to hire a real estate lawyer to assist them.

It was suggested that the WNCC could be considered a non-profit educational institution, which would mean very little or no zoning changes would be required. Other examples of these institutions include libraries, churches and schools.

No motions were made during the meeting concerning the start of the project, but Richard Butler, clerk of the Planning Board, told Jules, "You're doing everything right."

Before anything else can be done for the WNCC, an environmental survey must be conducted, and Pearsall said that a town-sanctioned forum would be needed for residents to voice their opinions.

Jules said that he hopes the groundbreaking for the cultural center can take place next year. If zoning changes are required, he will have to wait until after the special town meeting in May 2008.