Nightclub ruling, sprinkler order could sink Bombyx Center in Florence

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 05-23-2023 5:20 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity says an order from the city’s Fire Department last week shutting down live music at the Florence center has been both “unexpected and alarming” and now threatens the long-term viability of the facility.

At a press conference Tuesday at the center, Bombyx staff and board members, joined by the current and a former minister of the Florence Congregational Church, met to discuss the city’s decision, in which Fire Chief Jon Davine said the center cannot host indoor music until an automatic sprinkler system is installed.

As one immediate step, Elizabeth Dunaway, president of the nonprofit group’s board of directors, said the center is appealing Davine’s decision to the Massachusetts Fire Safety Commission and Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board, which can overrule the order.

“It’s our understanding that we can stage music as soon as that appeal has been made,” said Dunaway, who noted two shows are scheduled this weekend.

Cassandra Holden, the center’s executive director, said two concerts this past weekend (May 20-21) were moved to other locations, but that doing so is a money-losing proposition for Bombyx, if not as severe as having to cancel a concert outright.

“We cannot move shows elsewhere and expect to stay in business,” Holden said.

The bigger concern about last week’s shutdown order, speakers said, is that it has unexpectedly upended the approval that Bombyx staff thought they had with the city regarding their long-range plans to renovate the Florence center — plans they said they’d shared “right from the get-go,” as Holden put it, with the city since the fall of 2021, when Bombyx began managing the property.

“To suddenly be told we’re somehow not in compliance is jarring and really quite confusing,” said Kyle Homstead, one of the center’s co-founders.

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The Bombyx Center is located in Florence’s historic Congregational Church, whose parishioners continue to use the sanctuary. The center is also home to the Beit Ahavah Reform Synagogue and the Cloverdale Preschool, while numerous other local groups, such as the Young@Heart Chorus, use the facility on a regular basis.

Since taking over management of the property in the fall of 2021, the Bombyx Center, a nonprofit group, has also opened the facility for art exhibits, public talks, educational workshops and other events, including private functions such as memorial services, as well as live music.

The Rev. Marisa Egerstrom, the Congregational Church minister, said she was disappointed that no one from the city had reached out to her on the matter. Had they done so, she said, she would have been happy to tell them that the agreement the church formalized with Bombyx has kept the building from being left vacant.

“We were not making it on our own,” Egerstrom said. “And if Bombyx goes down, we go down. And if our church goes down, then the synagogue and the preschool go down.”

“Don’t we have enough vacant, shuttered churches in the city already?” she said.

And the Rev. Irven A. Gammon, the church’s former minister — he served at the church from 2005 to 2020 — said the partnership Bombyx has developed with the church and its other community partners is viewed as a model by other faith communities looking for ways to stay solvent. (Gammon today is executive director of the Fellowship of Northeast Congregational Christian Churches.)

“Why would the city want to jeopardize that kind of partnership?” he said.

The shutdown order

The issue began May 11 when the Fire Department’s fire prevention officer, Capt. Mark Curtin, came to the Florence center unannounced and, after inspecting the sanctuary, told Holden he was ordering all indoor music events immediately shut down.

That forced the cancellation of a two-day (May 12-13) music fest that Bombyx now estimates cost the center, its partners in the festival, and nearby businesses as much as $20,000 in losses.

According to a letter that Davine sent Friday to Holden, Curtin, who was accompanied by Kevin Ross from the city’s Building Department, came in response to “noise complaints from neighboring properties.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, Bombyx staff said seven neighboring households had evidently written a letter to city officials complaining about noise and parking issues at the center, prompting the visit from Curtin and Ross. But that letter was not initially shared with Bombyx, they said.

Yesterday, Holden and Dunaway also said they’ve been trying to address concerns with neighbors about these issues by meeting with them regularly and also monitoring the sound levels of concerts.

“We understand that what we’re doing represents a change in the neighborhood,” said Holden, adding that most concerts end at 9 p.m. with some going to 10 p.m. (their license allows weekday shows until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on weekends, Holden noted).

At issue in particular is how the Fire Department and city view the center and how Bombyx views itself. In his letter to Holden, Davine said a number of factors, from crowd size to dimmed lighting to the occasional sale of alcohol, classified the center as a nightclub, in turn triggering fire prevention requirements such as a sprinkler system.

The center does not have a liquor license, but occasionally vendors or other “third parties” apply for a special one-day license to allow alcohol sales there, Dunaway said, including for private events.

Bombyx also sees itself as as a cultural and community arts center of which live music is a small part — perhaps 5% of its overall activities — though that music is a vital source of income.

Holden and Homstead are also the principals of Laudable Productions of Easthampton, which stages concerts in the area and further afield, such as the Millpond Live music festivals in September in Easthampton.

Bombyx officials also say their understanding from the city had been that they would only have been required to install sprinklers if music had been 50% of their operation, or if they built major additions to the structure, or once they took full ownership of the building, which is expected in 2028.

“Adding sprinklers has always been part of our plan, but they would also be part of our need to make the building fully ADA compliant, such as putting in elevators,” Homstead said.

Alan Wolf, chief of staff for Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, organized a meeting last Thursday between Bombyx staff and board members and various city officials to try to address these issues. What became apparent at that meeting, he said, was that fire safety was an issue during concerts, especially with crowds of over 300 people attending.

“We cannot compromise on that,” he said.

Wolf said Bombyx staff and board members were told last year that to have live music, they would need to apply for a change in use by getting a zoning change for the center from residential to industrial/commercial. He said Bombyx got approval for that last September, but did not notify the Building Department afterward.

“That would have triggered an inspection from the Fire Department,” Wolf explained.  So when noise complaints sparked a visit from fire and building officials May 11, Wolf added, the fire inspector determined part of the center — the sanctuary — was being used as a nightclub.

Yet Bombyx officials say they remain perplexed by the sudden focus on the live music part of the operation, saying they’ve been clear from the start that music would be part of the center’s “mix.” Their first show, in late October 2021, took place as the center was first discussing its plans with the city, Holden said.

Putting in a sprinkler system would require “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Homstead said, which is why doing so has been part of the center’s long-range plan so that funds could be accumulated for the work.

Sciarra said last week she wants to help Bombyx find some of those funds — in part by repurposing a $79,000 city grant for other renovations and using it for installing sprinklers.

In the end, Bombyx staff say they’re still trying to learn more about how the state classifies nightclubs, saying they’ve spoken to “numerous” state and local officials who don’t believe the center meets that definition.

In a statement they released before yesterday’s press conference, they also claim they’ve “spoken to several former fire chiefs who have all confirmed that our experience is highly irregular and seemingly discriminatory.”

“We just want to find a way forward,” Holden said. “And we want to keep working with the city to make that happen.”

Steve Pfarrer csn be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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