Husband and wife Jeff Flagg and Carol Noonan want to make small Maine town a 'destination place' with 200-seat performing arts center

If folk musician Carol Noonan has her way, Brownfield, Maine, will be soon "a destination place." She has lived with her husband, Jeff Flagg, in Brownfield for more than a decade on a beautiful nine-acre piece of land with two barns alongside one of the town's four oldest houses. By this fall, the newest barn will have been picked up and moved behind and attached to the house, all in an effort to make a 200-seat performing arts center.

The barn, built in 1996, is a timber-frame building with unique construction and, once moved and redesigned, will have a cathedral ceiling, stained glass windows and a beautiful, rustic-looking stage. It will be the Stone Mountain Arts Center.

Providing varied musical styles — blues, jazz, classical and folk — and an assortment of other entertainment including variety shows, dances and children's events will compose a major portion of the building's use. Noonan believes with the 200-person capacity that national, recognizable acts, such as Shawn Colvin, could make stops there. However, she and Flagg also envision art exhibits, workshops, classes and outside functions to help fund the facility and provide community service.

" We want to book weddings,too," Noonan, 46, said. "The side of the building that will face out to the field will be a really nice view for weddings. There aren't that many indoor venues that hold that many seats that actually go year-round. A lot of the B&Bs in our area that we know and really like to work with don't have real big space. This is a pretty spot. It would be a great fall and winter indoor venue for weddings or functions."
Noonan has approached many people about the project. Some of her fans, even those who have never been to Maine, have become investors. Others are eager to partake of the opportunity, such as Ben Anderson of Wolfeboro Folk and Great Waters, who would be ready to present concerts there.

" I think it's an absolute wonderful idea," said Anderson, "and a wonderful place and great addition to the community — her direct community and the folk community. Her idea is excellent and true to what she's looking at. You don't have to go to the great urban centers for quality entertainment."

Noonan, having been a professional cook, bartender and waitress along with her acclaimed musical career, has a solid background of experience to know what will work and how. Food, beverage and hosting other events will allow this to be profitable.

"Hopefully, that will help pay for the money that we lose on the music," she chuckled.

Investors have fulfilled the financial requirements for the first phase, of the two-phase project, which is the structural part. The second phase is about getting it up and running, from interior design to scheduling the entertainment.

First impression for some may be that it's a risky whim, but Noonan and Flagg have planned, strategized and used their business experience behind the effort. It's all about being honest and fair with everyone, from the local townsfolk to their investors. They have set this up as a five-year plan, in which the investors get a season pass for each year and at the end of the five years receive six percent interest along with repayment of the investment. At that point, Noonan and Flagg will mortgage the property (if need be) to pay the investors back. However, this gives the duo an unencumbered five-year window to make it succeed.

" If this really fails we will lose our whole place," said Noonan. "The upside is that's why we are connecting it to the house. We can sell the whole property and get out from under it really easily and be fine, but we would lose a place we love and a life we've made here."

They have raised $100,000, about half of the total projected cost, to do the first phase, expected to begin July 18, of excavating the couple's backyard to provide septic, drilled well, and new foundation for the barn. The barn will then be hoisted up, with a crane, and moved over their 200-year-old barn that is positioned between this one and the house. After being separated into two pieces for ease of move, it will be turned and positioned behind the house.

" It's the frame we are really after with this building," Noonan said. "It's a really unique frame. When Jeff had this built, it was designed for building fishing nets and he didn't want any posts in the middle of the room. So he ended up doing the joinery so that the posts come down to the sides. The joinery up top is pretty, too."

"These floor joists will come out and it will be open floor to peak," said Flagg, 49, referring to the second floor." When we move it we will be raising it up," Noonan added, "so that we can put a balcony facing the stage. It will be cool-looking." Once the septic and foundation are complete, which Flagg said should take roughly three weeks, they can move the barn.
" The septic system is the biggest expense to do for the whole project," said Noonan.

The internal work includes installing a commercial kitchen and bar. They have visions of a beautiful telegenic rustic stage, stained-glass windows and spiral staircases to the balcony, all of which will be enhanced by the wonderful natural acoustics they discovered when the barn was originally built.

It will be an all-in-one night out with a full-fledged restaurant (on show nights), and, while they've been approved for a full liquor license, they are going to limit the selections to beer and wine.
" Anybody who has a couple martinis and is at a show is not there to enjoy the show," Noonan said. "And we don't want them there. We are really trying to be considerate of our neighbors. And the last thing I need is to be shutting off my neighbors."

The couple want the entire experience to be positive for the public. They want plenty of parking, a nice atmosphere, good food, great entertainment and a reason for people to keep coming back. Because of their love of Brownfield and desire to do it correctly, they went to their neighbors to get thoughts and acceptance, then they went to the planning board and were quickly approved." They've been really supportive about it," said Noonan of the planning board. "We didn't have any problem. We got the plan approved on the second meeting," said Flagg.
This passion for their community goes beyond their own venture. They hope this generates an economic upturn for other local businesses, such as bed-and-breakfasts in the surrounding towns including Eaton, Fryeburg and Conway.

" Something that I really hope helps the whole area, commerce-wise," Noonan said. "It's amazing, when I do these shows at the Little White Church (in Eaton), what it does commerce-wise for these little towns for that one night. Both restaurants are packed and there's so much money being spent on a Thursday night in Eaton, New Hampshire. There's CDs being bought; there's food being bought; there's liquor being bought; there's employees being used for that night who might not normally get work that night. It's really good for the area."
How soon they open depends on the second phase of investing.

" If that goes as well as this first half has gone," Noonan said, "we would love to be open by Christmas. It's pretty ambitious, but if the money's there there isn't any reason we shouldn't be (open). This is a pretty crazy thing."

But crazy things can happen. People scoffed at Flagg having a fishing net business in Brownfield. Noonan probably has a bigger and more lucrative music career now than when she was with Rounder Records in the 1990s.

Perhaps crazy is an amalgamation of luck and forethought. Flagg saw the fishing industry transforming in the mid-nineties and left Portland, where he had a shop and employees, though he still goes to Maine's biggest city frequently on business. Noonan and Rounder parted ways. She returned to bartending for a period of time to help make ends meet. Shortly after, in 1999, she was featured on National Public Radio. With her Web site just launched, the Web address was given over the air and she said she sold thousands of copies of her albums just from that mention. Of course, she also supported those sales by touring the country. She has managed her career independently since. Combined, these two enterprising people know how to run a business, and Noonan has extensive knowledge about the music industry.

" Given who she is," said Anderson, "and she has experienced so many sides of things. She knows what works and what musicians like and what the audience make it top-notch."

She knows that paying an artist, printing tickets and so on dominates the money taken from the ticket prices. Other means of income must be generated, such as renting out the hall for weddings. The restaurant and beverage service can also produce income, but ultimately the idea is to provide something so few do in the area — entertainment, dinner and parking all in one place." Us country folk don't want to hassle with the city anymore," said Noonan, "but the city people will come out here. We want to park easy, we don't mind the snow, but not fight traffic and want it to be easy."

" Get something nice to eat and a glass of wine or a beer, just a real pleasant evening out," said Flagg." What also makes us unique is the fact that you can do everything in one building," Noonan said. "My grand plan is to make this a destination place. People come and stay at a B&B and come up and see a show."

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