Over the past 25 years, Anthony Ejarque has witnessed a number of initiatives aimed at revitalizing downtown Rochester. As executive director of the Rochester Opera House and co-owner of The Governor’s Inn, Ejarque has played a direct role in trying to inject more vibrancy into the downtown. Some projects have been more successful than others, but Ejarque is especially optimistic about a new venture taking shape in the Lilac City.
“We really think that we’re kind of spearheading a revival downtown,” Ejarque said. “I think this is one of the best efforts I’ve seen.”
That project is the Rochester Performance & Arts Center. A satellite venue of the Opera House, it is expected to open on North Main Street sometime in 2017. It will house a live performance space, art gallery, recording studios, classrooms, rehearsal space, and more, all in the heart of downtown Rochester.
“There’s so much that we can do in that space,” Ejarque said.
The first phase of construction is already underway at 32 North Main St., former site of Carney Medical Supply. Once the work is done, the not-for-profit facility will give the Opera House sorely needed space for rehearsals, storage, and smaller-scale performances. It will also provide new opportunities for educational programming. And, perhaps most importantly, it will give the downtown an economic boost, with a ripple effect that could benefit surrounding businesses.
According to Opera House publicist Matt Wyatt, chair and co-founder of the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts, the new venue will also help showcase the city’s burgeoning creative community.
“I believe that Rochester’s downtown, especially, has so much to offer when it comes to the arts,” Wyatt said.
Building an arts center
The Rochester Opera House is a not-for-profit organization located within City Hall on Wakefield Street. Built in 1908, the venue hosts concerts, film screenings, dance performances, and plays, as well as a summer theater camp.
“Currently, the Opera House is in pretty constant use,” Ejarque said. “We’re really starting to push the limits of what the facility will allow in terms of space.”
Last summer, Ejarque was approached by Brian Hughes, president of the Holy Rosary Credit Union, an Opera House sponsor. Following some conversation about the organization’s needs, Hughes offered access to the space on North Main Street, which the bank owns.
“It was a vacant building, and the credit union had an interest in doing something downtown, so we started formulating this plan,” Ejarque said. “We grew the plan from there, and in early July we signed the lease.”
The building has two floors, each about 4,000 square feet. According to Ejarque, the first phase of construction will cost around $150,000. The Opera House is fundraising aggressively, seeking donations and sponsorships, while also forming partnerships with nearby businesses and nonprofits.
One partner organization is the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts (RMFA), which will curate the center’s gallery. Wyatt said the new gallery would make local art more accessible, and the talent on display could change the way people think about Rochester.
“With all the hard work that people are doing to bring art to the downtown, I really feel that that is starting to become our image,” he said. “We want to change the perception of Rochester.”
A community project
The gallery is the first room guests will encounter when they enter the Performance & Arts Center. According to Wyatt, the space will feature rotating exhibits on a monthly basis.
“I think it’s going to be one of the best visual arts galleries in the area, at least in the Seacoast,” he said.
Continuing through the gallery, guests will enter the performance space. With capacity for about 100 people, the venue will host smaller performances that wouldn’t make sense in the 700-capacity Opera House, including shows by local teen bands.
The performance space also doubles as a recording studio, offering the unique opportunity for high-quality recordings of live shows. There will be additional recording studios in other rooms, as well as classroom space for music and art lessons. According to Ejarque, the center might also host yoga lessons and other activities.
“I’m excited about the positive aspect that this will bring to downtown. … It’s a little outside the norm for what you see on a retail strip.” — Jetpack Comics owner Ralph DiBernardo
Jetpack Comics owner Ralph DiBernardo said he has been connecting Ejarque with local artists who could potentially serve as instructors. DiBernardo said Rochester has struggled to draw attention to its creative community ever since Artstream Gallery moved to Dover in 2013 — the same year Carney Medical Supply shut down (Artstream has since relocated to Rollinsford).
“I feel like when Artstream moved out, we kind of declined a little bit,” DiBernardo said. “It was hard for Rochester to get a footing in the arts community again, and this is definitely going to help.”
Furthermore, he said, the center will bolster North Main Street, where Jetpack has been located for about 10 years.
“I’m excited about the positive aspect that this will bring to downtown,” he said. “It’s a little outside the norm for what you see on a retail strip.”
Michael Provost, executive director of Rochester Main Street, said the new arts center could generate significant economic activity.
“It’s really nice to see a large space that’s really not conducive to hosting a startup business being transformed into something that will draw foot traffic and activity in the downtown area,” he said.
The exact timeframe for when the new arts center will open is uncertain, but people can get a sneak peek during a preview party on Thursday, Sept. 15, at 5 p.m. Organizers will be on hand to answer questions and show guests around the building.
“It’s one thing to read about it, but it’s another thing to be there and actually check it out in person,” Wyatt said. “It’s a really amazing space.”