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Colonial's new Showroom ready for post-pandemic performances
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Downtown Keene has a slick new venue for live music. Or it will, just as soon as it’s safe to pack 200 people into a room again.

The Colonial Performing Arts Center announced Monday that it has completed construction on Showroom, a brand-new performance space at 20 Commercial St. meant for smaller acts. It will supplement The Colonial’s iconic Main Street theater, which opened in 1924 and is also going to see extensive renovations over the next year.

Executive Director Alec Doyle said the smaller space will allow The Colonial to book a wider range of artists and attract new audiences. That could include local bands trying to establish themselves, as well as genres with smaller followings, like jazz or “something that’s on the edge of classical,” he said.

Showroom can accommodate about 150 seated or close to 300 standing, compared to 900 in the main theater.

Doyle said some acts are big enough draws to book in the larger theater. “But there’s lots and lots and lots of things that we want to do that don’t fall into that category, because they’re not broadly popular yet, or they’re not broadly popular because of the form,” he said.

Tucked away behind the main theater in a two-story brick building, Showroom includes a lobby with a bar — taps are already installed — and the performance space itself. A small stage faces dozens of seats rising toward the back wall, with two more rows on a balcony. The balcony wraps around two walls, and also includes a line of high-top tables, some of which practically have an overhead view of the stage.

Doyle said flexibility was a priority. The entire ground-floor seating arrangement is automatically retractable, so te space can easily be turned into a dance floor if that’s a better fit for the event. A high-definition video projector and retractable 22-foot screen have been installed for film showings.

And the space has an altogether different vibe than the grand old theater on Main Street.

The structure originally housed an early 20th-century auto business — with a showroom on the second floor, Doyle said. To create a roomy concert space, workers cut out much of the second story, leaving what became the balcony. It has the showroom’s original wooden floor, Doyle said, complete with oil stains and burn marks. Exposed pipes and the remnants of steel girders on the balcony’s underside add to the industrial-chic vibe.

“We want to give a nod to the history of the building, and I think it’s just a cool look,” Doyle said.

Doyle said he hopes Showroom can draw new audiences, including younger ones. “I think that there’s been something of a vacuum in terms of other things for the college kids to do, other than go to a bar.”

While it’s too soon to say with certainty, given the pandemic, Doyle thinks conditions may allow the venue to open for shows in the fall.

Showroom is just one part of The Colonial’s ongoing renovation and expansion, which Doyle estimated will cost about $12.5 million overall. On Monday, the organization announced that construction is beginning this month on the main theater.

That project will involve overhauling both back and front. The rear wall will move 15 feet back, creating space for a green room, new dressing rooms and other backstage improvements. Meanwhile, the lobby will expand to include a concessions area on one side and ticketing on the other.

“It’ll open all that up, so when you walk in, you’re not in the middle of everything,” Doyle said. “You actually have space to hang out.”

Construction will wrap up by February 2022, he said. The theater has some shows booked for that month.

The main theater renovations were originally planned as a two-year project. But rather than reopening with a limited capacity in 2021, as required during the pandemic, The Colonial’s leaders decided to keep the theater closed completely and condense the construction projects into a single year, they said in Monday’s news release.

As hard as it’s been to pause performances, Doyle said the arts will be important as Keene recovers, both economically and psychologically. He hopes The Colonial can be a part of that, starting with Showroom’s first events later this year.

“We are champing at the old bit to get this place rocking and rolling,” he said.

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Swanzey zoning board OKs exception for 84-unit apartment complex

SWANZEY — The zoning board of adjustment has advanced a proposed 84-unit apartment complex in West Swanzey, granting the special exception the project needed to move forward.

In a public hearing Monday night, the five-member zoning board voted unanimously to approve the request from Avanru Development Group, a Walpole company that intends to construct a pair of three-story residential buildings at a vacant site on Route 10, near Gomarlo’s Supermarket.

Avanru initially presented its proposal for the buildings — each of which would include 42 units offered at affordable rates, for a total of 36 one-bedroom, 36 two-bedroom and 12 three-bedroom apartments — at a Feb. 8 zoning board hearing. Board members voted at that hearing to continue the session Monday after several nearby residents argued that the development would tarnish the area’s rural character and reduce local property values.

The 84-unit project requires a special exception from the zoning board because it is in Swanzey’s business district, which does not otherwise allow multi-family homes.

A separate Avanru proposal, for a 76-unit apartment building for seniors on Old Homestead Highway, has been mired in a months-long legal battle after the zoning board denied Avanru’s request for a special exception last May. (The board is currently challenging a Cheshire County Superior Court order, which nullified its decision, in the N.H. Supreme Court.)

To grant a special exception, the ZBA must determine that the proposed use is similar to existing uses authorized in the district and that the location is appropriate for such use; that it would not harm property values or be offensive to the neighborhood; that it would not pose a nuisance or hazard to vehicles or pedestrians; and that facilities would be provided to allow for its proper operation.

At its hearing Monday, the zoning board again heard opposition to the proposed Route 10 development from residents of Cobble Hill Pines Condominiums, a cluster of homes on Perry Lane. That street would offer the only access to the apartment complex, according to the existing site plan, though Avanru President and CEO Jack Franks told board members that he hopes to add access via the Gomarlo’s parking lot.

In a letter to the zoning board, 33 Cobble Hill residents argued that Avanru’s proposal is unlike a nearby apartment building, Princeton Square, because it would have smaller units and be closer to the road. The residents wrote that they have not had time to study whether the new buildings would reduce property values but said they believe the development would be “a serious obstacle in [their] ability to sell [their] homes.”

“We already have homeowners who say they would not have bought their home here if they had known this was imminent,” they wrote.

The Cobble Hill residents also said noise, vehicle exhaust and lights from the apartments would be a nuisance to neighbors, that the units would cause significant traffic on Perry Lane and that new residents would fill that street with cars while their parking lot is plowed. (Swanzey’s director of planning and economic development, Matthew Bachler, read the letter to attendees Monday.)

David Painchaud Sr., who lives on Perry Lane, told board members that he believes an influx of residents to the area would disrupt its rural character.

“I have a feeling that our neighborhood is going to turn into the public park,” he said. “… I’m not trying to be a bad neighbor, but we all moved here and purchased these homes because we thought it was going to be a peaceful and quiet place.”

Responding to those concerns, Franks noted that a N.H. Department of Transportation study found no traffic safety issues with Avanru’s proposal and that a professional appraiser concluded the development would not reduce nearby property values. (In a Feb. 2 letter to Avanru, Daniel G. Weaver of the state-licensed firm Appraisals Unlimited said there would be a “net zero” effect on those property values under the current development plan.)

Franks also argued that the apartments would address the local housing shortage and provide workers for local businesses. And he rejected Perry Lane residents’ claims that the proposal is aesthetically inadequate, saying those issues are not under the zoning board’s purview and pledging to address them later in the process.

“I would just ask for patience,” he said. “We will take those concerns very seriously, and we will work very diligently with the planning board to ensure that it is aesthetically pleasing.”

The site plan Franks presented Monday night was adjusted slightly from his previous proposal, to address pedestrian safety concerns that residents and zoning board members posed at the Feb. 8 hearing. The latest plan would install sidewalks on Perry Lane and a shelter on Route 10 for students waiting for the school bus.

The five ZBA members present Monday night — regular members Anne Karasinski, Adam Mulhearn and Bryan Rudgers, plus alternate members Jillian Exel and Wayne Lechlider — voted unanimously on all four criteria for a special exception, approving Avanru’s request.

The project will now go before the Swanzey Planning Board for a site-plan review.

Pope Francis says priests cannot bless same-sex unions, dashing hopes of gay Catholics

ROME — Pope Francis has invited LGBT advocates to the Vatican. He has spoken warmly about the place of gays in the church. He has called for national laws for same-sex civil unions.

But Monday, Francis definitively signaled the limits to his reformist intentions, signing off on a Vatican decree that reaffirms old church teaching and bars priests from blessing same-sex unions.

The pronouncement, issued at a time when some clerics were interested in performing such blessings, leans on the kind of language that LGBT Catholics have long found alienating — and that they had hoped Francis might change. It says that same-sex unions are “not ordered to the Creator’s plan.” It says acknowledging those unions is “illicit.” It says that God “cannot bless sin.”

The decree shows how Francis, rather than revolutionizing the church’s stance toward gays, has taken a far more complicated approach, speaking in welcoming terms while maintaining the official teaching. That leaves gay Catholics wondering about their place within the faith, when the catechism calls homosexual acts “disordered” but the pontiff says, “Who am I to judge?”

Francis “has extended a warmer welcome than any of his predecessors have done,” said Patrick Hornbeck, a Fordham University professor of theology who is gay, married and Episcopalian. “But today’s statement shows that his hospitality has limits.”

Few who have carefully followed Francis’s words expected him to dramatically alter the church’s stance on LGBT matters. Many times, he has stated his opposition to same-sex marriage. Officially, the church says that sex should be between a man and a woman, for the purpose of procreation. Changing any part of that would also prompt a reconsideration of other church positions, whether on gender or contraception.

Though the Vatican did not specify what prompted the decree, it was written in response to existing doctrinal questions. Some Vatican watchers speculated that the church might be responding directly to bishops in Germany, who are in the middle of a multiyear series of meetings — to the alarm of conservatives — aimed at reevaluating major aspects of the church, including sexuality and the role of women.

In a 2019 interview with The Washington Post, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the deputy chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said that although he could not bless same-sex unions — “that would not be approved by Rome,” he said — he didn’t object if priests wanted to be with couples in a civil ceremony outside the church.

“I like to give the priests freedom to decide themselves,” Bode said.

Monday’s note referred vaguely to proposals to bless same-sex unions “being advanced” in some quarters.

But the church’s doctrinal body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said blessings can only be invoked on a relationship when it is “positively ordered to receive and express grace.”

In some issues of controversy, Francis has left decision-making up to local churches, comfortable with policy that varies from country to country or even parish to parish. But in this case, Francis took the opposite approach — one that will put pressure on liberal clerics to fall in line.

Chad Pecknold, a conservative theologian at Catholic University, said Francis was following in the mold of Pope Paul VI, who had seemed open to doctrinal change on sexual morality but then issued a 1968 edict reiterating the church’s ban on artificial birth control.

“This is Francis doing much the same — shocking progressives by affirming the church’s teaching that sexual activity outside of the marriage of one man and one woman is contrary to the good of human dignity,” Pecknold said.

The church said Monday that its determination was not intended to be “a form of unjust discrimination” and called on priests to welcome those with “homosexual inclinations” with respect and sensitivity. The decree said individual gay people could continue to be blessed by the church, provided they show “the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”

The statement from the Vatican is fairly brief — 1½ pages — and begins with a succinct question, asking whether the church had the power to bless same-sex unions.

“RESPONSE: Negative,” the document answers, going on to elaborate.

The decree comes just five months after Francis roused hopes among LGBT Catholics with comments calling for same-sex couples to be “legally covered” by civil union laws. But there was a bit of mystery about whether the pope’s remarks had been meant to become public. The comments surfaced in a documentary premier, but they had originated from a portion of a 2019 interview with a Mexican broadcaster that was never aired.

Steve White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said people who expected Pope Francis to change the church’s position on same-sex unions were not being realistic.

White, who describes himself as conservative, believes the pope is simply reiterating existing church teaching, even as he has expressed love for people who are LGBT without condoning their partnerships.

“This isn’t a waffling back-and-forth from Pope Francis,” he said. “This is totally consistent with statements like ‘Who am I to judge?’ People who don’t see that are misunderstanding the pope.”

But many gay Catholics, speaking Monday, said they felt betrayed or wounded by the church. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, America’s largest spiritual community of gay Catholics, said it is “hard for a lot of people to understand just how far removed the church is from human rights advances that are being made in the rest of society.”

Aurelio Mancuso, former head of Arcigay, Italy’s leading gay rights group, said that in a 2016 ceremony with his partner, a priest had blessed their wedding bands — and that such acts would continue to go on, “regardless of the reprimands.”

“Catholic homosexuals like me know the opinions and traditions of the Catholic Church,” Mancuso said. “The gist of it is that we’re not part of the Creator’s design, and are thus a sin, something that has to be corrected. It’s intolerable that the hierarchy — not the church — stubbornly keeps justifying a discrimination.”

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FBI investigating properties associated with Free Keene in city
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The FBI says it is conducting several investigations in Keene this morning, including at 73-75 Leverett St. and on Route 101, properties associated with a group known as Free Keene.

This is “court-authorized law-enforcement activity” in connection with an ongoing federal investigation, said spokeswoman Kristen Setera.

There is no threat to public safety, Setera said. She declined to comment on the nature of the federal investigation, saying that it is still underway.

The local investigations Tuesday are also at 661 Marlboro Road (Route 101) and at 659 Marlboro Road, which is owned by Shire Free Church Holdings LLC. That entity also owned the Leverett Street house until ownership was transferred in 2014.

Keene police Lt. Steven Tenney said Tuesday morning that the department is not actively involved in the investigations. Keene police officers are managing traffic near the properties under investigation, he said.

FBI officials were seen going into the house at 659 Marlboro Road and the nearby business, Mighty Moose Mart. Christopher Waid, a part-owner of Mighty Moose, said he rents his business space from the church. Waid said he is also a co-host of Free Talk Live, a program affiliated with the church.

The N.H. Secretary of State’s office lists Ian Freeman, another co-host of Free Talk Live, as chair of Shire Free Church Monadnock’s board of directors and its main address is listed as 73-75 Leverett St.

The Leverett Street house is now owned by Shire Free Church Monadnock and has been home to some individuals associated with the libertarian-leaning activist group often referred to locally as Free Keene.

In 2016, FBI officials seized items from the same house as part of an ongoing investigation into what a search warrant stated as the possession or distribution of child pornography.

According to a search warrant affidavit filed at the time, that raid was triggered by a weekslong sting operation set up by federal authorities in Virginia after seizing a child pornography distribution website. The affidavit stated that the FBI had tracked one user to an IP address assigned to Free Talk Live, which is hosted at the Leverett Street house.

The affidavit mentioned that Freeman lived at the house and was associated with Free Talk Live, but did not contain direct evidence that he had accessed the website. Freeman denied he or his housemates had done so, and noted that many people had access to the house’s network.

No arrests were made, and Freeman was never charged in federal court with anything related to the raid, according to the federal judiciary’s online database of cases.

Subsequent attempts by The Sentinel to obtain information on that case have been met with silence from the FBI.

The FBI’s March 16 operation at the Leverett Street house does not appear related to its earlier investigation. Six New Hampshire residents, including Freeman, were arrested in a coordinated federal operation March 16 and charged with running an unlicensed scheme to sell virtual currency.

Other Sentinel staff contributed reporting. This article has been updated to reflect new information about the March 16 search at 73-75 Leverett St.