The Strand Theatre on Columbia Road is one of Dorchester’s most promising public assets. Last week, the city’s Boston Planning and Development Agency convened a public meeting to discuss the future of the 100-year-old facility as part of a broader planning effort for the Uphams Corner neighborhood.
It’s true that the Strand is pivotal to revitalizing Uphams Corner, but as the only city-owned venue of its kind, in the right hands, it could also be a citywide, even regional, playhouse and cultural center.
The fact that the city of Boston owns the Strand has its roots in the early 1970s, when the theatre was closed and on the verge of collapse from neglect. It was literally saved from the wrecking ball by Mayor Kevin White whose administration took control of the property and then leased it for a nominal fee to a non-profit community board that operated the Strand into the 1990s. But, when that non-profit model collapsed amid a financial scandal in the late 1990s, the city’s arts and tourism office under Mayor Tom Menino was obliged to take over day-to-day operations.
To his credit, Menino doubled down on the Strand— pumping more than $10 million into maintenance and upgrades. Twice, he staged his State of the City address at the Strand and used the spotlight to pound home his vision: He wanted the theatre to one day be the “Apollo of Boston.”
Mayor Walsh later sent an early signal that he, too, has a vision for the Strand beyond its parochial niche in Dorchester. He launched his 2013 candidacy for mayor from the Strand stage and held a massive rally there on the eve of his victory to succeed Menino.
But, building sustained progress for the site has proven to be frustrating. A Menino-era task force of arts and business leaders confirmed what many believe to be true: The city should seek a private partner to run the Strand— and maybe even buy it. In the 1990s, the city issued a request for proposals in hopes of attracting a qualified arts-related entity to take it over, but there were no takers. A well-received residency by Fiddlehead Theatre Company that began in the waning days of the Menino era ended when it moved to a different theatre in Boston.
Times have changed, of course. A shortage of parking— a hindrance at the Strand for many years— has been mitigated by new technology and public transit enhancements nearby. And, of course, there is more private development creeping closer to Uphams Corner. Most recently, the city has committed to build an $18 million library branch next door.
At last week’s meeting, John Barros, the city’s chief of economic development, was direct in his assessment of what could happen next:
“We don’t think the city should be running the Strand,” he told the Reporter, adding that he expects the city to seek out new private partners.
“We have some pretty strong cultural institutions in the city, pretty strong development teams in the city, and we’re hoping that we could do a lot with this process to be very clear and do it in a way that’s really exciting,” he said. “So that we get a lot of responses back and this community can pick someone that fits.”
Barros, who lives just a block away from the theatre, has got it right. This could be a marquee moment for the Strand with the right confluence of public and private interest— and a heavy dose of community input. To that we say, “Bravo!”