BRATTLEBORO—Moments before Elsie Smith helped to break ground for a $2.5 million building project in Brattleboro, a hard-hatted man on stilts loomed over the crowd.
“It is starting to look like a real circus around here, don’t you think?” Smith asked.
It was an appropriate vibe for the Sept. 29 event. Smith and her sister, Serenity Smith Forchion, were celebrating the pending creation of a new home for New England Center for Circus Arts, the school they founded here more than a decade ago.
The project — which will include a 5,800-square-foot “trapezium” with a 40-foot-high ceiling — is further evidence of the center’s rapid growth. The project’s backers also point to its economic benefits, as the circus arts center is drawing increasing numbers of instructors, students, and spectators to Brattleboro.
When the complex off Town Crier Road is finished in a few years, “we will truly have created a national and international destination for circus arts, while never losing sight of this community that we serve right here in Brattleboro,” Smith said.
‘Bursting at the seams’
The Smith sisters are identical twins and international performers who founded a Brattleboro organization called Nimble Arts in 2003.
They moved Nimble Arts into the sprawling Cotton Mill complex soon after and expanded the organization rapidly, incorporating as the nonprofit New England Center for Circus Arts in 2007. During an event at the Cotton Mill earlier this year, Elsie Smith joked that NECCA had “proceeded to slowly take over the building.”
Even as NECCA expanded within the former industrial site, the school still lacked spaces well-suited to accommodating a mix of students, staff and audience members. While the Cotton Mill offers ceilings that are 12 to 16 feet high, administrators say they need 24- to 40-foot ceilings for aerial circus training.
The school offers outdoor trapeze training, but those sessions are reliant on good weather.
As students sailed through the air and fell into a safety net not far behind her, Elsie Smith noted that “we only get one more day of flying trapeze before we have to put this to bed, because it gets too cold.”
Kate Anderson, president of NECCA’s board, said the reason for a new campus is clear: Counting students enrolled in workshops worldwide, the center boasts an enrollment of 6,000. The center also offers a number of community programs.
“We need it — plain and simple,” Anderson said. “We are bursting at the seams.”
The only option: Build
Finding a new location, however, wasn’t easy. In literature supporting the capital campaign, administrators wrote that a “comprehensive search for an appropriate existing building proved fruitless because of the very specific height and technical requirements necessary to support aerial arts.”
They concluded that “new construction is the only way to meet those needs in a timely fashion.”
The school found its new home in 2014 with the purchase of 3 acres off Town Crier Drive.
That same year, New England Center for Circus Arts launched a $2.5 million fundraising campaign to support construction of a new headquarters on the property. To date, about $1.2 million has been raised.
That’s enough to support the project’s first phase, an 8,600-square-foot building. The majority of that space is dedicated to the trapezium, which will allow budding trapeze artists and their instructors to stay indoors.
The structure will feature an additional 1,400 square feet dedicated to a reception office, vestibule, and restrooms. There also will be a second-floor mezzanine.
A range of benefits
Elsie Smith has dubbed it “the first custom-built circus building in the United States.”And that customization is allowing NECCA administrators to make a host of changes they say are necessary for the school to continue to grow.
“It means better safety, with building-specific equipment like an in-ground foam pit and an in-ground trampoline,” Smith told the crowd gathered for the groundbreaking. “It means higher ceilings for skills we’ve never been able to do here in Brattleboro at NECCA, like swinging trapeze, which is what Serenity and I performed at Cirque du Soleil.”
Other benefits will include handicapped accessibility and a much larger performance space.
The project’s second phase will feature additional training studios and offices. “We’re also planning an outdoor performing space, so we can have a campus,” Smith said.
“Once we have both phases of this building complete, we’ll be able to teach any circus skill out there,” she added. “We’ll be able to host performers and circus companies and educational conferences and circus festivals.”
The circus-themed celebration at the NECCA groundbreaking included music, a hot dog vendor, popcorn, and multicolored balloons. Those who grabbed shovels for the ground-breaking — including Gov. Peter Shumlin — were asked to don red clown noses for the occasion.
But there also was serious talk of economic development. The expansion of New England Center for Circus Arts was included this year in a list of “vital projects” in the Windham region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy.
“This is a good business plan,” Shumlin said. “This creates jobs, economic development, opportunity. Most importantly, it changes kids’ lives.”
Jeff Lewis is well-acquainted with the workings of the circus arts center, having formerly worked as executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which owns and operates the Cotton Mill.
Many of the circus center’s instructors aren’t full-timers, as they still maintain performing careers. But Lewis recalled noticing that, one autumn a few years ago, several faculty members at the center had purchased homes in Brattleboro.
“So they were becoming permanent residents here — confident in their career with NECCA [and] their performance career, and stable enough to invest in real property and become part of our community,” Lewis said. “That is real economic and community development.”
Lewis also said the circus center is creating its own unique brand of entrepreneurs. “Every year, NECCA turns out about 20 or 25 new little businesses, because all of those professional-track graduates go out to become performers ... each one is a little business on its own,” Lewis said.
The business of fund-raising is critical to the NECCA project’s completion. While celebrating their success so far, administrators pointed out that they’re only about halfway to the finish line financially.
The project’s first phase is expected to be ready by June 2017. But Elsie Smith noted that the second phase’s timing depends on pulling together enough funding.
“We are ever mindful of all that we still need to raise to meet our goal,” she said.
Even as the groundbreaking event focused attention on the building project and the work ahead, there also was much applause for NECCA’s founders. Shumlin noted that the sisters won a Governor’s Arts Award this year — the Walter Cerf Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts.
“Without Elsie and Serenity, none of this would be possible,” Shumlin said. “So, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for having the vision, the tenacity, the skill, and the talent to make this happen.”