A decade later, Claremont celebrates opening of new creative center

Melissa Richmond, executive director of the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts, left, and violinist Ernesto Villalobos, second from left, assemble a portable stage as Chris Cheon, second from right, and Jeremiah Brophy, right, hang acoustic panels on the walls of the new Claremont Creative Center performance space in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. They are preparing for a grand opening celebration for the completion of the first phase of renovation of the former Claremont National Bank Building to begin Friday with a concert in Broad Street Park by Bassel and the Supernaturals, who will be joined at the new venue later in the evening by the Villalobos Brothers for a jam session. Saturday evening there will be a ribbon cutting and concert by the Villalobos brothers. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Melissa Richmond, executive director of the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts, left, and violinist Ernesto Villalobos, second from left, assemble a portable stage as Chris Cheon, second from right, and Jeremiah Brophy, right, hang acoustic panels on the walls of the new Claremont Creative Center performance space in Claremont, N.H., on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. They are preparing for a grand opening celebration for the completion of the first phase of renovation of the former Claremont National Bank Building to begin Friday with a concert in Broad Street Park by Bassel and the Supernaturals, who will be joined at the new venue later in the evening by the Villalobos Brothers for a jam session. Saturday evening there will be a ribbon cutting and concert by the Villalobos brothers. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

After a year-long renovation of the Claremont National Bank building in Claremont, N.H., the organizations leaders worked to ready its new performance space on Tuesday, May 28, 2024 for a grand opening on Saturday. The second phase of the project will turn the second story of the building into office, classroom and practice space. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

After a year-long renovation of the Claremont National Bank building in Claremont, N.H., the organizations leaders worked to ready its new performance space on Tuesday, May 28, 2024 for a grand opening on Saturday. The second phase of the project will turn the second story of the building into office, classroom and practice space. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Melissa Richmond, photographed at the former Claremont (N.H.) National Bank building on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, is the founder and executive director of the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts. In partnership with the Claremont Development Authority, which owns the building, Richmond is leading a renovation of the building into a permanent home for her organization. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Melissa Richmond, photographed at the former Claremont (N.H.) National Bank building on Tuesday, May 28, 2024, is the founder and executive director of the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts. In partnership with the Claremont Development Authority, which owns the building, Richmond is leading a renovation of the building into a permanent home for her organization. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News - James M. Patterson

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 05-30-2024 4:01 PM

CLAREMONT — First conceived 10 years ago, the new home of the West Claremont Center for Music and Arts will become a reality with this weekend’s grand opening of the Claremont Creative Center in Opera House Square.

This week as the portable stage was being assembled in the first floor performance area for this weekend’s shows, Melissa Richmond, the center’s director, had trouble capturing her emotions at seeing her vision realized.

“It is hard to believe,” Richmond said. “I don’t think I have the words to describe it.”

Richmond, a Stevens High School graduate and classically trained flutist, started the center for music and arts in 2008 with concerts held in the Union Episcopal Church on Plains Road.

While some performances will still be held at the church because of the excellent acoustics, Richmond said the new center in the heart of downtown not only will bring in world-class performers but also could be a meeting space for other community groups.

Art studios, workshops and other educational offerings will be an integral part of the center when second floor renovations are completed in the next few years.

The first floor also will have a commercial kitchen to make the center more versatile.

“It really is an adaptable and flexible space,” Richmond said. “That is what venues look to do now, fit the need. It is very unique and is what presenters often want because it can be hard to fill an opera house in a lot of communities.”

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Claremont resident Sharon Wood, who has been a member of the local theater group, Off Broad Street Players, since the 1990s, said the center will offer an ideal setting for performances. The new space has seating for about 90 people, while the neighboring Claremont Opera House seats 800.

“I’m excited for the possibility to stage some of our smaller shows there because as much as we enjoy the great Claremont Opera House, too many times the shows attract a smaller audience and we need to have more intimacy with audiences closer to the performers,” she said.

The new center’s main performance area retains the high cathedral ceiling, original molding, flooring and marble columns of the three-story brick building that was constructed as a bank in the early 20th century. Also original are the large windows facing south.

“We had a building that had been vacant for 30 years in the heart of the downtown and now it will bring arts organizations into the downtown and we know that has an important secondary impact on other businesses,” Claremont Planning and Development Director Nancy Merrill said. “I think the other important piece is how much we appreciate all the support we have gotten on this project.”

First built early last century as the Claremont National Bank, the building last operated as a restaurant that closed around 1990. The city later took possession of the building by tax deed and turned it over to the Claremont Development Authority to manage and market.

Richmond said when first began looking for a larger space for the creative center, she and Merrill looked at several properties in the downtown before agreeing the former bank building provided the best opportunity.

“As we were getting ready for the (city’s) 250th anniversary (in 2104), we began looking at a good spot for a performance venue and teaching space,” Richmond said. “Ultimately, of all the properties we looked at, this was the diamond in the rough.”

Andy Lafreniere, the Claremont Development Authority’s director, said the authority was receptive to Richmond’s idea for the building but also approached it critically because of all the work that needed to be done and money raised.

“We knew it was going to be a big project, but also an important one for the city,” Lafreniere said. “So we had to make sure it was going to work.”

Private developers rarely, if ever, are willing to invest money into an old building of just 6,000 square feet because it can be difficult to earn a return on their investment from rental income, Lafreniere said.

About $1.6 million has gone into the renovations so far with donations from a number of area businesses, the purchase of tax credits, the Capital Regional Development Council, the Community Development Finance Authority, nonprofit foundations and the city.

“That is why I think government programs and partnerships between private and municipal developers can help in situations like this,” Lafreniere said.

In 2018, the city obtained a grant for about $70,000 to remove asbestos and lead, which was a significant step and a turning point toward making the building reusable.

In 2020, a capital campaign began to raise money for the renovations. Construction on the first floor began in March 2023.

Now that it is ready to open, Lafreniere said it will boost the downtown. He praised Richmond’s vision and hard work.

“The end result is an organization that brings culture and arts to the community but also we now have a building that has undergone, and is still undergoing, significant renovation,” Lafreniere said. “… Every community around us has benefited with strong arts and culture and this is a big step toward that.”

Richmond said the center has been awarded $2.3 million from the federal government and that will be enough to complete renovations to the second floor and fund operations for a few years.

Upstairs, where construction is expected to begin later this year, Richmond said there will be a large gallery space that can be rented, art classrooms, practice rooms for teaching music and a recording studio.

After years of work, Richmond looks forward to being able to welcome the community to come and experience the space: “It is going to be a really good feeling.”

On Friday beginning at 6 p.m., there will be tours of the center followed by a concert at nearby Broad Street Park by Bassel and the Supernaturals. Inside the Center at 56 Opera House Square, Bassel and the Supernaturals and the Villalobos Brothers will perform at 8:30.

On Saturday at 5:30, there will be a ribbon cutting and other activities with Villalobos Brothers performing at 6:30. For more information on this weekend’s events and ticket information, visit wcc-ma.org.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.