HOWARD WEISS-TISMAN , Brattleboro Reformer

PUTNEY -- The Putney Historical Society knew it was taking on a long-term project when it agreed to assume ownership of the former United Church of Putney in 2009.

The church membership voted earlier that year to disband and at the Putney Historical Society annual meeting in September the historical society agreed to take over the historical 1841 building at 15 Kimball Hill.

"We knew we had this beautiful sanctuary with a lot of possibilities and we knew we had to preserve this building," said Putney Historical Society member Lyssa Papazian. "But at the time that’s really all we knew."

An engineering assessment was done and the structure was found to be in pretty good shape for a 169-year-old building, so the historical society began raising money to invest in the facility.

Using local, state and foundation support, phase one of the restoration work was completed with upgrades to the air circulation, electrical service, energy efficiency, fire safety, accessibility, seating and stage and lighting equipment.

Now Papazian said it is time take on phase two, and tackle some of the higher-priced upgrades that will ensure that 15 Kimball Hill remains a part of the Putney community into the future.

The Putney Historical Society and Next Stage Art Project, the non-profit organization that brings cultural programming to the facility, has launched a $500,000 Building Fund campaign to make key upgrades to the building.

The money will be used to install an elevator to make Next Stage fully accessible and to restore the slate roof and belfry. Phase two also includes funding for exterior repair and painting, electrical upgrades, structural repair, the addition of a sprinkler and key improvements to the performance space.

The new capital campaign is being announced after about $240,000 has already been secured, including a $70,000 Vermont Housing and Conservation Board grant and a $20,000 grant from the Vermont Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Division for Historic Preservation.

A few months after the historical society agreed to take over and preserve the building a group of Putney residents with experience in the arts, architecture and development formed to figure out the best way to fill the seats in the newly acquired 180-seat room.

The group called itself the Next Stage Art Project, and they renamed the building and theater at 15 Kimball Hill, Next Stage.

Once the group came together an important decision was made, said Billy Strauss, president and co-founder of Next Stage Arts Project.

The historical society and the Next Stage Arts Project board knew there was an endless list of projects to make the building energy efficient, accessible, efficient and comfortable, but Strauss said they decided to open the doors right away and begin programming.

The initial feasibility study found that the building would need about $1.3 million to get it completely accessible, up to code and equipped for professional music, theater and film productions.

It would take years of fundraising to get that kind of money, so instead an ambitious schedule of film, music, spoken word and theater was developed.

Crowds showed up and the Next Stage Arts Project board discovered that there was interest in running a non-profit arts center in Putney

"It was pretty overwhelming, right from the start, how this community supported us," Strauss said. "We knew this building was going to be saved for the community, and we were going to let the community tell us what they wanted us to do with it."

Strauss says that support is largely driving this phase of the re-development.

If Next Stage scheduled events and no one showed up it would not make sense to invest another $500,000 into it.

"Clearly the community has responded," he said. "They have told us that they support this idea. The work we are doing with the Putney Historical Society reflects a national trend to adapt and re-use important historic spaces to help revitalize communities across the country."

Still, Strauss says it continues to be an ongoing process of development and evaluation as Next Stage figures out the best way of using its space.

Just last week there were three straight nights of events, including a community dinner wedged in before a concert.

Strauss says the Next Stage Arts Project members are looking for that "sweet spot" of scheduling cultural events that will draw a crowd without overwhelming the facility, the volunteers, or the community.

"We are learning as we go," Strauss said. "So far the response has exceeded what we anticipated and it seems like the depth and variety of programming is drawing a wide berth of audience."

There is still a phase three of preservation and development for the Next Stage, but Papazian says this latest campaign is going to address most of the major capital improvements to bring the building into compliance and to make it more comfortable and accessible.

The unique relationship between Next Stage Arts Project and the Putney Historical Society means there are different pools of grant funding to explore, including those that support the arts, those that focus on historic preservation and others that give funding for downtown and village development.

But at the same time, Papazian says, it gets confusing for donors.

Next Stage just held an appeal to support its art programming and the historical society has other needs and projects for which it needs to raise money.

All of the money raised during the phase two capital campaign will go directly into the building upgrades, Papazian says.

And Papazian says the two groups need to formalize their relationship, as the entire experiment has largely been run by a group of friends and collaborators who trust each other and work together to make Next Stage happen.

In the money raised so far for phase two, about $40,000 came through local donations.

She says the $260,000-or-so that needs to be raised will help to further transform the former church into a professional performing arts center

"It’s going to take a lot of heavy lifting this year to continue to preserve and adapt the historic building that has served as a vital community gathering place in Putney since 1841," Papazian said. "But this is a great place and we seem to have a model that has support. That’s why this is working."