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Port in Progress

September 3, 2007

Group swayed city to reject hotel, create arts center

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NEWBURYPORT | Created in 1991 with the hope of luring tourists to the downtown and of creating a haven for the city's vast art community, the Firehouse Center for the Arts today lures thousands | from around the corner or as far away as the other side of the world| to its 195-seat theater.

From its origin as a market house built in the aftermath of the great fire of 1811 to its role as the city's central fire station for more than a century, the building remains a center of activity for the city.

But the fate of the building, revered for its architecture and prime spot on the waterfront, wasn't so clear on June 14, 1979. On that day, the fire department moved from the central station into its new location at Greenleaf and Fulton streets, leaving the historic building vacant and the city with a big decision.

Some powerful people in town, including the mayor, advocated making it part of a hotel. But others, including a passionate group of residents, felt it should be used for the community.

"We wanted to see development of the Firehouse," said Chris Welch, a member of the committee that worked to keep it open to the community. "We just didn't want it to be private commercial development."

To make it happen, residents had to sway the leaders of city government.

Courting a hotel

Hoping to find a new purpose for the historical gem when the fire department moved out, City Council formed a committee to study alternative uses for the old building. The group met eight times over the course of a month.

In its final report, the panel issued a number of suggestions: use the ground floor as a way to attract customers, add to the existing commercial base downtown, make use of the unique characteristics of the building and be open on a year-round schedule rather than seasonal. The upper floors could be used a restaurant or offices.

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