Catamount Arts Reopens in St. Johnsbury After a Yearlong Closure | Performing Arts | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Catamount Arts Reopens in St. Johnsbury After a Yearlong Closure


Published June 19, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 19, 2024 at 10:58 a.m.

The Catamounts Arts staff in front of their building in St. Johnsbury - STEVE LEGGE
  • Steve Legge
  • The Catamounts Arts staff in front of their building in St. Johnsbury

Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury has reopened its building at 115 Eastern Avenue after closing last June due to air quality concerns.

A longtime epicenter for arts in the Northeast Kingdom, the nonprofit organization has been hosting film screenings in its headquarters since the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation gave it the green light to return on May 10. This Thursday, June 20, a grand reopening will make it official. The celebration, featuring a parade led by Bread and Puppet Theater and a party with a cash bar, intentionally coincides with the summer solstice, a symbolic marker of the transition.

"We're really excited after what has been a very difficult year," executive director Jody Fried said. "It's going to be a very fun, very meaningful day for us in the community."

Catamount closed its doors last June after inspectors found elevated levels of air contaminants in the building during a round of due diligence testing. The organization halted all indoor programming and temporarily moved administrative operations to ArtPort, a space in St. Johnsbury's Green Mountain Mall where Catamount had already created a satellite location during the pandemic.

In the meantime, Stone Environmental, a consulting firm in Montpelier, implemented what's known as a "corrective action plan" to rid the building of contaminants. That included installing a sub-slab depressurization system, which draws air from beneath the building's foundation and vents it outside, and coating the building's foundation and elevator shaft with heavy-duty sealants.

The chemicals, trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), are common dry-cleaning solvents that often begin as water contaminants before vaporizing and infecting the air inside buildings. Prolonged exposure comes with health risks such as kidney cancer, cardiac defects and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Clearing the contaminants cost about $300,000, an expense Catamount covered entirely through a combination of grants and government relief funds, according to Fried. Funding sources included the Brownfields Revitalization Fund, a state program meant to foster economic development by supporting the restoration of contaminated properties.

Jody Fried - STEVE LEGGE
  • Steve Legge
  • Jody Fried

Fried noted that despite access to emergency funds, the closure resulted in significant revenue losses. In 2022, under normal operations, Catamount's profits were roughly $163,000, according to its 990 tax form. During the closure, Fried said, the org spent more money than it brought in.

"We never recouped our losses as a business," he said. "It was a very difficult time, given that for an entire year, we weren't able to do a lot of what we normally do."

Testing determined that the contaminants were coming in through utility lines located in the northwest corner of the building, according to Fried. Authorities believe the original source of the chemicals was a defunct dry cleaner on Eastern Avenue. It's not the first time dry-cleaning solvents have caused issues: In 2017, employees were forced to vacate state offices — also located on Eastern Avenue in St. Johnsbury — after inspectors found elevated levels of PCE, TCE and chloroform beneath the buildings' foundations.

Catamount moved into the space at 115 Eastern Avenue in 2005. It renovated the historic building, which opened in 1912 as a Masonic Temple, to include a gallery, two movie theaters and an 80-seat performance venue.

Founded in 1975 by local filmmaker Jay Craven, Catamount runs a regional box office for more than 40 organizations, an annual New Year's Eve festival, afterschool arts education and a summer music series, among other programming. Over the past year, the box office continued to operate in a temporary location at the Caplan's Building on Railroad Street in St. Johnsbury.

Now, as Catamount approaches its 50th anniversary, Fried said he's looking forward to business as usual. The arts center is currently hosting film screenings — catch the new comedy Babes, starring Michelle Buteau and Ilana Glazer, from Friday, June 21, through Wednesday, July 3 — as well as educational workshops and summer camps. Fried plans to reopen the building's art galleries and permanent box office soon.

"We can't wait for movies, art exhibitions and all kinds of art happenings," said Gillian Sewake, executive director of Discover St. Johnsbury. "The reopening of the center gives the community back its artistic heartbeat."

Catamount is also continuing to mount off-site events, including an outdoor concert at Dog Mountain featuring the blues band Dwight + Nicole on Sunday, July 14, and a Community Sing series at Saint Andrew's Episcopal Church for which people of all skill levels come together to create music. On Sunday, June 23, the theme is "songs of the '60s."

Catamount's future programming capabilities, Fried said, will be dependent on sustained community support. For now, he's excited about returning to the building he fondly refers to as "home."

Arts Center Grand (Re)Opening, Thursday, June 20, 5:30 p.m., parade begins at the Caplan's Building and ends at Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury. Free.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Back From Intermission | Catamount Arts reopens after a yearlong closure"

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