Can a Community-Supported Theatre Revive a New York Town Known Best For a Prison?

Anne Field | April 28, 2015


Ossining, New York, a tiny town along the Hudson River about 35 miles north of Manhattan, is mostly known as the home of Sing Sing, a maximum security prison that gave us the euphemism about going “up the river.” But some long-time residents are determined to transform their village’s languishing downtown into a thriving destination—and they’re turning to the local community to help fund the effort.Ossining

The plan, spearheaded by residents Dennis Kirby and Wayne Spector, is to buy a 19th  century  opera house in the center of their historic downtown and use it to jumpstart revitalization of the area. The primary source of funds: a community investment fund aimed at selling shares to local residents and business owners. “We think this will change the whole dynamic of the area,” says Spector, a partner at Cohn & Spector in White Plains, NY, and attorney for the town of Ossining. “It will be a game changer.”

There is a long history of arts as economic development, and more and more it is community-driven and funded. From Boone, N.C. to Binghamton, NY, residents have breathed new life into their downtowns with community-supported arts projects and theatre rehabs. In fact, the Jacob Burns Film Center, a restored 1920s theatre in nearby Pleasantville, NY, that shows independent and art house movies, served as an inspiration for their effort. Since the Jacob Burns theatre opened more than a decade ago, shops and restaurants have opened up and the one-deserted streets are now bustling with people in the evenings.

“Arts institutions cultivate creative energy that attracts new businesses, new residents, and new investment, said Kennedy Smith, a principal with the Community Land Use + Economics Group.

In Ossining, it all started about a year and a half ago when Spector and Kirby, a semi-retired human resources executive who is on the town planning board, decided it was time to do something about their bedraggled downtown. “There was a lot of residential construction going on, but you’d walk up the street and there’d be no place to go eat,” says Kirby. When a reporter from a local publication interviewed them one evening recently, they had a hard time finding a coffee shop that was still open in which they could talk.

Early on, the two men managed to raise about $10,000 from 100 donors to do a feasibility study. But they knew they needed a more concrete plan to inspire a critical mass of involvement.


Grow Ossining board at work

The breakthrough came last December. That’s when they learned that a three-level, former opera house in the center of the village was going up for sale. It seemed the perfect solution—a space able to serve as the anchor for further development of stores and restaurants. They came up with a plan that would have a performing arts and events center upstairs, with a groundfloor restaurant that also could provide catering for arts events.

Kirby and Spector formed Grow Ossining Management, an LLC which will be a partner in a still-to-be-finalized Grow Ossining limited partnership. A three-year business plan includes a total purchase cost of around $ 1 million and about $1.5 million for renovations. In addition, they plan to form a separate nonprofit that would operate artistic events and could be eligible for government grants.

Former Opera House Awaiting Renovation
Former Opera House Awaiting Renovation

Early this year, however, the two men encountered a hitch. The building’s current owner challenged the group to raise a refundable deposit of $50,000—“just to make sure we were viable,” says Spector. But because the limited partnership was still being formed, they couldn’t offer any units for sale. So they decided to ask people to lend money to the LLC at zero-percent interest. Kirby and Spector scheduled tours of the building, ran a whirlwind social media campaign and, by mid-February, after about four weeks, they raised over $60,000.

Recently, the men signed a letter of intent with the building’s owner giving them eight months to finish the deal. That includes 90 days to raise $300,000 and five months to close. Over a three year period, they want to raise $1 million through the community investment fund, which probably will sell at $250 per unit (UPDATE: the price has been lowered to $100 to accomadate more investors). “If people have skin in the game, they’re going to want to make sure the project succeeds,” says Kirby.

And if the theatre revivals that have gone before them are any indication, Ossining someday could be known for a lot more than a prison.

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