201008ind Courthouse

Mariann Almonte, executive director of the Courthouse Center for the Arts, talks about the venue's heating system, which is in need of replacement. She hopes that recent fundraising efforts will allow her to make necessary improvements to the former courthouse, which was built in 1893.

WEST KINGSTON, R.I. — Donors and their life-saving money have delivered a unique form of deserved justice for survival of the Courthouse Center for the Arts.

Just about a month ago, Executive Director Mariann Almonte worried that a lack of cash flow would symbolically become judge, jury and hangman for this local arts center. She would need to close the doors unless $5,000 came to the rescue.

However, in the last month more than $57,000 in donations have come in to restore full programming and even make needed repairs to the building, said an ecstatic Almonte this week.

“It’s been a wonderful support of love of people who have stepped forward to help us get back on our feet,” she said.

The center offers various concerts — often tribute bands to popular artists — theater and art instruction free for young people in inclusive classes and summer camps. It also offers work readiness programs and internships for young adults to learn skills that will prepare them for the future.

But coronavirus restrictions and limitations brought an end to these programs on March 15. Almonte is now attempting to start up some programming with the tribute bands, but state rules and her own precaution are severely limiting crowds —and income — for the center.

While she could have nearly 200 people in the building, “that is way too much for our room to feel safe,” she said. The old courthouse has a former courtroom serving as a stadium-style stage.

So, the abrupt halt to programs brought a show-stopper to the important revenue stream for paying expenses, upkeep and repairs. Almonte described the monthly losses as more than $20,000 when events ended.

The center was teetering on insolvency.

“It’s been tough, really tough. We’ve just recently re-opened and we cannot bring in all the people we once did that underwrite what we do,” she said in late August soon after it reopened, as some fears for gathering indoors subsided enough that a minimal audience might attend shows.

“Every other row is marked off,” she explained about the COVID-19 re-design for the inside. Dancing, which was once allowed, is confined to far fewer couples, and they need to stay only where an “x” is marked on the floor so that they are staggered.

As news spread of her plight, contributions began to arrive in small and medium-sized amounts. One donor made a “significantly large” contribution, but with the understanding that the source and amount be anonymous, she said.

“All of that has now enabled us to really ramp up and get going,” Almonte said. The donations will be used to make some needed building repairs such as fixing or redesigning a heating system for the building.

Keeping the Courthouse Center for the Arts well-maintained and a vibrant part of the community is important, said donors, including Richard and Carol Jurczak as well as Roland Fiore, president of South County Sand and Gravel.

“From my perspective, the director’s dedication and vision for the Center for the Arts have the potential to play an important role in preserving the community’s past, while meeting the needs of the current residents and benefactors,” Fiore said.

“I do enjoy the entertainment component of the center. A key element of its mission is working with youth. Mariann has incorporated this as a priority for the center. I consider the organization to be an important part of Washington County,” he said.

For others, the atmosphere is an environment worth preserving and saving.

“We support the Courthouse because we like it there,” said Richard Jurczak.

He said, “We like the venue, the music, the people, the historic building and appreciate what they are doing for the community. We go as often as we can and have been so doing for the last few years.”

However, other donations, such as one from a local bank, have dried up and there’s also an online ticketing operation’s increased service fees, Almonte said, noting that the struggle with funding is not new.

Even performers at the center, such as New Shoreham Police Chief Vincent T. Carlone, who has played with his own band there, said that fundraising is a necessity and some have accepted cuts in their regular fees when performing.

Old buildings pose various recurring problems that need to be fixed, Carlone said last month, and that poses challenges to the courthouse supporters to find innovative ways for continuous fundraising.

Almonte said this week that some of that innovation includes having a Facebook social media drive for ongoing donations as well as virtual online concerts that ask for suggested donations.

“I’m indebted to my community. I don’t know what I would have done if these donations didn’t happen. I don’t think we would have made it,” she said.

Bill Seymour is a freelance writer covering news and personality feature stories in Narragansett, North Kingstown and South Kingstown. He can be reached at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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