Editor's note: Additional coverage of Wednesday's debate will be published in the coming days. The following article is specific to arguments related to Shakespeare Theatre.
The issues were longstanding, the candidates resolute and the audience, a tightly packed group of maybe 100, at times audibly agitated.
The first mayoral debate of the season was held Wednesday at St. Joseph’s of Stratford National Catholic Church.
Throughout the hour-and-a-half forum, Republican incumbent John A. Harkins reiterated his platform, which included his persistent stance on Shakespeare Theatre.
“It has to make sense,” Harkins said of any future restoration. He said he’s not going to pump taxpayer dollars into the long-shuttered, storied theatre at the expense of other town services, such as those for seniors or infrastructure improvements.
Harkins said estimated annual operating costs alone are at least $1.5 million and “the governor can’t just send us money.”
The mayor said a consulting group that the town hired in 2011 is still mulling options – all of which include a robust fundraising effort – and he expects to present a plan to the Stratford Town Council “soon.”
“The town is not committed to Shakespeare,” said petitioning candidate Ken Bruno, who has served as executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Bridgeport since 1994.
Bruno, a 41-year resident who is running unaffiliated, said he has visited the Elm Street theatre often in the past three weeks and has talked to volunteers, who he says “work without support of the town.”
In April 2012, Harkins, citing issues of public safety – specifically air quality – suspended all work on the theatre. The sudden closure led to protests at Town Hall and left Councilman Matt Catalano (R-3), an ardent supporter of the building’s revival and a thespian himself, puzzled.
“For the last two years a large number of volunteers, including myself, have been engaged in the work of cleaning our theatre, which sat filled with garbage from the time we took title in 2005 until we took office in 2009,” Catalano wrote in a letter to Harkins.
“Why would you lock the doors with no explanation and disenfranchise this group of residents and taxpayers from helping restore pride in our town?” In response, Harkins wrote that it’s his duty as mayor “to protect the town’s property and to assure for the public health and safety of our residents.”
Though the theatre would re-open two months later, theatre folks are still sour over the abrupt closure. This was evidenced Wednesday by catcalls from some members of the audience as Harkins spoke about supporting the effort to restore the building.
“If we don’t open it up, we need to have our heads examined,” said Democratic candidate for mayor Joe Paul, a retired bank executive who serves on the town's planning commission.
Tourism is a burgeoning multi-billion-dollar industry and Stratford has a chance with Shakespeare Theatre “to get a piece of the action,” Paul said, adding that a revived theatre would also bring people back to town, to take residence and raise families.
While Paul did not mention any specifics on what a rehabbed theatre would offer in terms of entertainment or amenities, Harkins said a focus on the dramatic arts – such as the theatre of old – is not the correct approach.
“We can look at the asset and see what works,” he said. “We’re going to give it another shot.”
Due to medical reasons, petitioning candidate George Mulligan was only present for the introduction and summation portions of the debate and not for specific questions proposed from the audience. Peter Massey, the Republican candidate for First District Town Council, also fielded questions.