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BOMBYX to appeal Northampton fire chief's shutdown

BOMBYX Center for Art & Equity has been closed by the Northampton, Massachusetts, Fire Department. The department said the nonprofit arts venue is out of compliance with building code.
Nancy Eve Cohen
BOMBYX Center for Art & Equity has been closed by the Northampton, Massachusetts, Fire Department. The department said the nonprofit arts venue is out of compliance with building code.

The BOMBYX Center for Arts & Equity in Northampton, Massachusetts, said it's appealing the fire department's decision not to allow the venue to hold concerts until it installs automatic sprinklers.

BOMBYX executive director Cassandra Holden said the nonprofit will file an appeal with the state's Automatic Sprinkler Appeals Board later this week.

"We are hopeful that that appeal will stay further action from the city. Based on that, we hope to go forward with the rest of our programing," Holden said.

According to the law, after filing an appeal, a business can reopen unless the city's fire chief presents evidence that that would be unsafe.

In an email, Alan Wolf from the Northampton mayor's office said, fire chief Jon Davine's order said the concerts are a public safety risk and therefore the nonprofit can't hold concerts while it appeals.

"Chief Davine has identified a threat to life safety with his order. Under MGL c. 6. sec. 201, this precludes the resumption of operations at Bombyx while under appeal," Wolf's email read.

The fire department shut down the venue with a verbal order on May 11, followed by a written order a week later that classified the nonprofit as a "nightclub."

"I hereby order you to cease and desist all events that constitute a nightclub, dance hall, discotheque, bar or similar entertainment purposes inside the premises until automatic sprinklers are installed," the letter to BOMBYX from the fire department said.

But BOMBYX said it's not a nightclub — that it hosts fundraisers, workshops and concerts.

"We've had over 40 shows so far this year," said Board President Elizabeth Dunaway, speaking Tuesday in the sanctuary where BOMBYX holds events, "Alcohol has been on [the] premises for exactly three of those concerts. So by linking us with the alcohol being served on premises, it was just out of proportion."

The nonprofit founders said they talked with city officials about its plan to get the building up to code before it signed a lease-to-own with the Florence Congregational Church.

"We paid a lot of money actually to conduct a thorough code review of the building and then consulted with our city officials and our architect and our code consultant to lay out a series of investments," co-founder Kyle Homstead said.

Some neighbors have complained about noise and parking. Dunaway said it has met quarterly with neighbors to discuss their concerns.

"We've been very proactive meeting with a group of neighbors." she said. "We have been aware of this situation and we've been trying and working with neighbors to help them feel better about about what's going on here."

She said the nonprofit typically ends shows at 9 p.m., occasionally at 10 p.m. and one event went until 11 p.m.

Marisa Egerstrom, the pastor of the Florence Congregational Church, which owns the building which BOMBYX leases, said she supports the work of the nonprofit.

"To have not just a musical presenter, but an arts organization that is so driven to address issues of equity, to bring community connection in, to support the historic congregations of this place as well as their own dreams — this is a rare and precious opportunity," she said.

Corrected: May 24, 2023 at 10:03 PM EDT
Due to a typo, an earlier version of this story included the incorrect date for when the fire department shut down the venue with a verbal order. The correct date is May 11.
Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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