The Collins Center adjacent to Andover High School turns 40 this year. But some members of AHS building committee signaled last week it may not make it to 50.

“Keeping the Collins Center and renovating it seems like a choice to keep a problem,” Andover School and AHS building committee member Lauren Conoscenti said at the building committee’s Jan. 26 meeting.

The building committee is narrowing the list of choices for a layout for the new school. At its Feb. 9 meeting, the committee will narrow the choices down to two: one that calls for renovating the existing school and one for building a new school. Both of the plans will be priced out by March, but the committee has frequently signaled it prefers building a new school.

Built in 1983 for $4.1 million, or $12.4 million when adjusted for inflation, the 1,203 seat-theater was named after J. Everett Collins, an Andover musician and politician. Town Meeting approved $720,000 for the Center in 1978, but an additional $4.3 million was added to the construction budget in 1980. The construction costs eventually came in $740,000 under budget, and the theater opened in Sept. 1983 with a performance by the Boston Pops.

Notable artists who have performed at the Collins Center include Dizzy Gillespie, David Copperfield, Arlo Guthire, and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who played for AHS students after they won a WBCN radio contest in 1987.

Three On Building Committee Think Collins Center Should Go

In addition to Conoscenti, two other building committee members said they were leaning towards replacing it with a slightly smaller but more modern auditorium in a new high school. The committee’s other seven members did not comment for or against keeping the Collins Center.

Building committee member Shannon Scully said she “feels a little wiser now” after previously saying replacing the Collins Center “was a non-starter for me.” She raised concerns about renovating a nearly 40-year-old building adjacent to a new school meant to last for the next 50 to 60 years.

“I’ll admit that when the idea of getting rid of the Collins Center was first broached, I was horrified,” Scully said. “But the more I have thought about it, and the more I have thought about the deficiencies of it, I’m starting to see the merits of the smaller auditorium within the school.”

Committee member and Andover Facilities Director Janet Nicosia said she was also initially opposed to replacing the Collins Center. But, following the building committee’s tour of the new high school in Arlington, she was impressed with how the Arlington school’s new auditorium complied with the Americans With Disabilities Act and “just the closeness of the stage.”

“I’m leaning towards putting a new auditorium in,” Nicosia said. “I think it would serve the town well. And, to Shannon’s point, we’re going to be paying for this for a long time, so we don’t want to be coming back saying ‘We messed up by not doing that one building, now we got to go build another building on that site’.”

Cost Remains A Question

A replacement or renovation could increase the total size of the school by as much as 60.5 percent and allow it to accommodate up to 1,900 students, according to preliminary schematics. Once approved, construction of a new school would take approximately two to three years.

Construction officials and architects working with the building committee have suggested renovating the Collins Center will not necessarily be cheaper than replacing it. Overall project costs will also be impacted by whether the building committee opts for a renovation or new construction of the new school, and whether the new construction includes a parking garage or surface parking.

Last week, the select board approved the building committee’s proposed timeline leading up to a January 2024, when Town Meeting will be asked to fund the new school. While the project — which is moving forward without state funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority –would be the most expensive taxpayers have been asked to approve in Andover’s history, preliminary cost estimates will not be available until March.

The school’s current enrollment is 1,709 students, and a 2017 demographic study suggested the town should aim to build a high school for 1,900 students. Under current guidelines from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the existing school only has enough space for 1,400 students.

The current high school was designed for 1,200 students in grades 10-12 and opened along with Dunn Gym in 1968. The Collins Center was added in 1983. The last significant renovation came in 1995, when the science wing and field house were added, and the school was expanded to include ninth graders. AHS is just one of three high schools in Essex County that has not been replaced or had major renovations in the past 25 years.

Photo: J Everett Collins Center for the Performing Arts/Facebook

Tentative Timeline

  • Feb 6: Andover High School Community Forum
  • Feb. 9: Building Committee selects two building options — one for renovating the existing school and one for new construction — for pricing.
  • March 23: Preliminary cost estimates presented to HS Building Committee.
  • April 27: Building committee chooses to recommend renovation or new construction.
  • May 2023: Select board and school committee asked to approve building committee’s recommendation.
  • May 2023: Town Meeting asked to approve schematic design funds.
  • September or October 2023: Cost estimates performed.
  • Jan. 2024: Special Town Meeting asked to approve construction funding.
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