Thursday, June 13, 2024

Pedestrians pass by a sign for the Rooted cafe, which is inside Somerville’s Armory arts building. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Rooted Armory Cafe will stop daytime service July 1 as part of Somerville’s Center for the Arts at the Armory. The center can no longer afford to run the cafe and pay the city fees it generates, said its co-director and chief operating officer, Jess White.

The cafe, hidden behind the walls of a literal fortress, didn’t attract walk-in traffic; it was largely empty during the day and made money only during events, White said. But the city charged $90,000 in rent yearly – comparable to when the Armory was owned by the Sater family, who set up the nonprofit center as an anchor tenant in 2008.

During the day, the cafe will become office space for arts center employees, who got squeezed out by other uses. It could also be used as an artist “green room” for performers waiting to take the stage in the performance hall.

“It’s really sad. It’s a real bummer,” White said of the cafe closing. “The interactions that we see with people in our cafe that don’t know each other are amazing. I want that to exist for a really long time.” 

In addition to the cafe, Rooted served as a free space for local artists to show work on a rotating basis and for performers. Other spaces at the Armory can be rented, including its Lavender Room and a recently upgraded performance hall with a new stage, seating, lighting and sound systems.

Though the cafe will open to serve patrons during performances and events, its menu is changing to cut costs. It will use resources from Somerville Winter Farmers Market vendors, who also sell in the performance hall Saturdays from November to April.

The Center for the Arts at the Armory faces continued financial and operational hardship and has a $10,000 fundraising goal for the month of June. A fundraising auction has also been planned for this month with items donated by local businesses.

The City of Somerville seized the Armory at 191 Highland Ave. by eminent domain in May 2021 “under the guise of sustainability” and preserving the arts, White said, and it was “largely thought of as a blessing” at the time.

Under city ownership, the Armory hasn’t had a dedicated management or maintenance team, and the Somerville Arts Council and the City of Somerville have not set a plan for the Armory after two unpopular processes; two counter proposals and a petition sent to the city by the center haven’t been acknowledged, said White, who is trying to schedule a meeting with Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and plans to submit its master plan survey results to the City Council.

“We hope [the Arts Council] wakes up,” White said, because the center needs “stability and support” from the city.

Without a plan for the Armory, White and Stephanie Scherpf, chief executive and co-director of the nonprofit, are considering an exit strategy. Because the center hosts more than 700 events per year, its loss “would be devastating to the City of Somerville.”

This post was updated June 11, 2024, with a corrected farmers market name, a figure removed and wording changed around the setting up of the Center for the Arts at the Armory as an anchor tenant in 2008.