I am pleased to have the opportunity (as the result of a commentary in the March 1 edition of this newspaper) to reflect on the early days of Studio Place Arts, or SPA. I was the chair of the board during the three years in which we were creating our organization and restoring the burned-out Nichols Block building at 201 North Main St. From its very early days, the renovation of the Nichols Block stands as an amazing example of community collaboration and partnership across partisan lines.

The building now housing SPA (the Nichols Block), was formerly a mixed-use building that had suffered a devastating fire. After sitting empty for about five years and with a proposal to raze the building for a parking lot, concerned citizens went to the City Council to request a year to find an alternative use. A group of community-minded investors then purchased the building, creating the Nichols Block Partnership. John Weixel was the vice president of the Granite Bank and a member of the Barre Historical Society. The Barre Historical Society was charged with soliciting proposals for development of the building and determining the most suitable project for this vital downtown space. Two proposals were submitted: one from Housing Vermont, solicited and supported by Thomas Lauzon and John Weixel; and our proposal to use it for a community art space. The Barre Historical Society chose to support Studio Place Arts. Mr. Weixel then resigned his membership in the Barre Historical Society.

There were many people who encouraged us and provided support when we were struggling to create Studio Place Arts. Karen Winchell wrote the Community Development Block Grant proposal that brought $240,000 into the city to support economic development; Karen Lane and the late John Hanna, who each served as president of the Barre Historical Society during this period; and hard-working SPA board members Nancy Hanson, Georgia Landau, Maggie Neale, Eva Schectman, and Chris Wood. These people put in many, many hundreds of unpaid hours to make something good for Barre.

Now I’d like to tell a story that I have told privately many times over the years, but haven’t told publicly. I owe Mr. Lauzon’s recent commentary for now making it public.

We were a small number of mostly women who had no experience with property development and Mr. Lauzon was not happy that we were the ones taking on the huge task of applying for nonprofit status, getting financing, and fundraising, all within one year. He did not think we could pull it off. Nothing could go forward without a document from the Nichols Block Partnership giving us site control and Mr. Lauzon, over a period of many weeks, refused to return phone calls asking for a meeting to get his signature. Every time we called, his secretary said he was busy and she would give him the message. Finally, I and two other SPA board members went to his office and said we would like to wait until Thom had a few minutes to let us introduce ourselves and meet with him. We sat there for a long time. Finally, he burst into the waiting room, shouting that we were “harassing” him, crooked his finger at 5-foot 1-inch Georgia Landau, and marched her out onto a side porch and screamed, “If you don’t get out of here I’m going to call the police.” We left.

Eventually, he signed the document. We continued to secure funds, restore our blighted historic building, and work to create Studio Place Arts from scratch. Mr. Lauzon attended our grand opening in November 2000, and said, “I never thought they could do it.”

As far as the comment in Mr. Lauzon’s recent commentary that “We should have insisted that SPA pay full property taxes to support the city services that they enjoy the benefit of,” the fact is that SPA did pay full property taxes on the building for its first 12 years. After that, the building, which had been held by a limited partnership, was restored to the ownership of SPA the nonprofit. Compared to other nonprofit organizations in Barre, SPA currently pays a significant amount of property taxes (approximately 40 percent of the building’s taxed value).

SPA is almost certainly the only nonprofit organization in Barre City to pay property taxes at this level historically and at the present time. SPA has been, and continues to be, a wonderful project that provides classes, community activities, an attractive presence in our downtown, and a very highly-regarded regional art center.

It is peculiar that Mr. Lauzon would fault Sue Higby for not being present for the early organizing campaign as she did not move to Barre until 2000. She then became involved in SPA first as a volunteer, then as a board member, and finally in 2003 as our executive director. She has worked tirelessly to make SPA a model organization as well as doing other community service activities, including serving on City Council. Without her at the helm for the last 15 years, SPA would not have survived and made its amazing contribution to Barre and the whole region.

I’m sure this is what Peter Anthony meant by honoring her as the savior of SPA.

It is a mystery to me why anyone would attack Sue Higby, a person who has consistently given so selflessly — and effectively — for the good of her community.

Janet Van Fleet was a founding member of Studio Place Arts.

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