- Oliver Parini
- Ben Bergstein and April Werner
Old posters advertising the Vermont International Festival fill a notice board in Ben Bergstein and April Werner's office in Burlington's North End Studio A. Rows of whiteboards have been converted into monthly planners. Framed paintings and a map of the world decorate the rest of the room. North End Studios, on North Winooski Avenue, is the home base of the Vermont Performing Arts League. It's here that the husband-and-wife team plans the nonprofit's programs, including the annual VIF.
But North End Studios isn't solely an organization's headquarters — increasingly, it's a thriving community space. Locals have been coming to the studios for classes, performances and gatherings of all kinds. The space is especially popular with New American communities for engagement, graduation and wedding celebrations, Bergstein said. While the largest room, Studio A, has approximately a 150-person capacity, it's still not big enough for some of the events community members want to hold there, he noted. Bergstein and Werner have no larger space to offer them.
That's going to change.
The pair is currently in talks with the Champlain Housing Trust about managing the cafeteria and kitchen in the former Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph's church and school. That building is also located in the Old North End, in the heart of a neighborhood that's long been a first home for new arrivals. Its spaces will allow New American and other groups to host more and bigger events, said Bergstein. And its kitchen will permit on-site food preparation, which is not available at the North Winooski Avenue location.
"There is no [other] space that size that is going to be that affordable," Bergstein pointed out.
"I'm pretty hopeful," said Michael Monte, CHT chief operations and financial officer, of the organization's negotiations with Bergstein and Werner. "[We're] mutually working it out together, taking the right pace and making sure we do it right."
The housing nonprofit has signed an agreement with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington to lease and then buy the former school for $2 million. The building on 20 Allen Street currently houses three nonprofits: Robin's Nest Children's Center and the Janet S. Munt Family Room occupy the first floor, while the Association of Africans Living in Vermont is on the third floor.
This isn't the first community building CHT has developed, said Chris Donnelly, the organization's director of community relations. Some of its other properties are the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf and the McClure Multigenerational Center, both also in the Old North End. Donnelly said the current tenants of St. Joseph's approached CHT about two years ago, when the building was on the market and they were anxious about potentially losing their homes.
The school's newest tenant, the City of Burlington's Department of Parks, Recreation & Waterfront, is set to take the second floor. It will introduce indoor recreational activities and move its programming for seniors from the McClure Multigenerational Center to St. Joseph's.
Because the building lacks soundproofing, Bergstein and Werner noted, they'd need to discuss timing of programming with the tenants and work out a schedule. "We can have a one-stop shop in the building, where different programs can take place at different times," said Jacob Bogre, AALV's executive director.
Bergstein and Werner also see themselves as stepping into a "gatekeeper" role, making sure that no single group monopolizes the new event space, which will be colocated with the Family Room and Robin's Nest. Booking will be on a first-come, first-served basis, said Werner.
"This is a space for everyone," added Bergstein.
But before any new programming can be scheduled, the building needs to undergo renovation that will cost $5 million, according to Donnelly. The first phase will involve the installation of an elevator and renovation of the "antiquated" bathrooms. More extensive work, such as wiring, flooring and lighting, will take place during a second phase — after CHT has purchased the building. The sale is expected to happen next July.
Despite the hefty price tag, CHT is committed to keeping the rents at the school affordable, said Donnelly. Bogre noted that the current rent is "way below" what his organization would have to pay just about anywhere else in Burlington.
The project is about giving the organizations involved the support they need to be successful in the long term, Monte said: "Nonprofits need a stable home, too."
Donnelly hopes residents will be able to build their social lives around the facility. "We would love to see the building teeming with life and being the center for people to come in," he said.
As for Bergstein and Werner, they would like their new space at St. Joseph's eventually to be managed and operated by the immigrant and refugee community. "I would like to see it as a training ground — for training people how to manage and run an event space," said Bergstein.
At the North Winooski Avenue venue, New American youths who live in the area often help the couple set up and prepare for events. The bigger space at St. Joseph's, Werner said, would require more helping hands. Her husband hopes proximity to AALV will allow them to connect with interested individuals; that organization provides services such as employment counseling to refugees, immigrants and asylees.
There's still plenty of work to be done at St. Joseph's, but Bergstein and Werner are excited at the prospect of being part of a new community gathering place.
"The only reason why we're doing this," said Werner, "is because the Champlain Housing Trust has the same mission as we do: creating an institution that's going to last for this neighborhood."