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City Hall needs new approach to Strand revitalization

Mayor Tom Menino’s dream of “saving” Dorchester’s Strand Theatre is admirable. His administration has pumped some $8 million into the Columbia Road facility to date and plans to spend at least another $2 million on renovations in the next fiscal year.

Menino has a grand vision for the Strand, but sadly, his deputies have so far failed to deliver on Menino’s promise to make the Uphams Corner landmark a busy, viable performing arts center.

As the Reporter detailed in a special report published on Aug. 26 , the Strand Theatre has instead become a seldom-used, but costly outpost in City Hall’s portfolio of properties. Over the last two years, the refurbished theatre has only been active for about 40 days per year. That’s a dismal performance record, especially when you consider what the Strand’s plucky and under-funded staff pulled off in an earlier era, before City Hall managers took over operations. Today’s Strand does not even feature a youth troupe, something that once thrived at the theatre over the summer months and spun off talented, confident and fun-loving kids. It’s a lost opportunity and, if Menino does nothing else at the Strand, he should strive to re-start the Strand Teen Players.

There are other ways that the city can deliver on the mayor’s promise— if Menino and his cabinet resolve to make the Strand a priority.

Firstly, the mayor needs to keep the Strand at the front of his mind as he seeks to hire a new cabinet chief to run his department of Arts, Tourism and Special Events. (The present director, Julie Burns, has announced that she will step down later this month.) The next person who runs the mayor’s arts operation should have a background tailored toward running a theatre like the Strand. The new director should be given a directive to double the amount of activity at the Strand over the next two years.

In the near term, Menino should assign more personnel to staff the Columbia Road facility on a day-to-day basis. Presently, one woman staffs the theatre daily and for security’s sake the grate is pulled down and the doors are locked— sending the wrong message. Menino can enliven the theatre by staffing it with more people from his Arts and Tourism department. They can do their citywide work just as effectively from the city-owned Strand as they can from city-owned Government Center. People who need or want to do business with the city arts office can get themselves to the Strand— maybe such a visit will inspire them to use the space.

But, in the long run, Menino should focus on extricating his city hall staff from the Strand and finding a suitable non-profit partner to manage the operations of the theatre. This was the central recommendation of the 2004 Strand Theatre task force commissioned by the mayor: the selection of a partner agency to manage the operations while the city retained ownership of the building. Although the city conducted a formal process to solicit partners, no one stepped forward in 2004. However, the Reporter’s investigative team found that a potential partner did step forward three years ago with an intriguing proposal: First Night Boston, whose executive director, Geri Guardino, ran the Strand for much of the 1990s, offered to direct programming at the Strand. Menino’s lieutenants rebuffed the offer. That was a mistake.

The Strand needs energetic, devoted leadership that will regard the theatre as more than a throwback novelty house to be dusted off for special occasions. Menino’s investment of taxpayer dollars into the venue’s bones cries out for a consistent and coherent investment into its long-term management. That goal is best attained, as the mayor’s own task force suggested, by leaving it to professional theatre managers who can be held accountable for their performance.

The mayor says that his proudest moment in office came while he enjoyed the 2009 musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Strand. And we believe him. The show and the red-carpeted festivities that accompanied it spotlighted what the Strand could be with the right kind of sustained leadership. It’s time for Mayor Menino to re-commit his administration to finish the job that he started. Dorchester, and indeed the whole city will be better for it.

– Bill Forry