ADAMS — "Great idea," the Adams official said, looking across a meeting room at one of two artists pitching the Topia Arts Center.

"Congratulations on your project and your imagination," Select Board member Edward J. Driscoll told Caryn Heilman one winter night in late 2004.

But his praise proved premature. The dream that Heilman and Nana Simopoulos had of remaking a vacant movie house into a 700-seat theater and cultural center remained only that for more than a decade, despite years of work by a volunteer board, fundraisers, government grants and the creation of detailed renovation plans.

"Topia," the root word for "place" in Greek, was angling to be part of a new downtown landscape.

Today, the 27 Park St. property, once hailed as a spur to a revitalized downtown, is on the market — the founders' dream deferred, if not lost.

Topia Arts LLC, owner of the site, has listed the more-than-10,000-square-foot theater for sale with Royal Property Group at $449,000. The listing does not include the Topia Inn on Pleasant Street.

Driscoll appears to have been right when he observed 14 years ago that Heilman, a professional dancer, and Simopoulos, a musician and composer, had big ideas for this corner of the Berkshires.

When they bought the old brick theater, they envisioned a nonprofit arts and education center. It would have been a new lease on life for the derelict space, which had been rebuilt after a 1937 fire but has been closed since the 1960s.

As they seek to put the theater in new hands, the owners believe their initial vision still has merit, years after many in Adams have likely forgotten about it because of inaction.

"We hope to find someone who can take this project to the next level," Simopoulos said. "Hopefully, a person or group of people who can see the potential a theater has to make a difference in the quality of life for the people of Adams as well as the Berkshires as a whole."

Simopoulos said the owners themselves invested $300,000 to purchase the building. They ponied up an additional $125,000, she said, to renovate the cafe space on Park Street.

Town's role

Simopoulos said that when she and Heilman agreed to work together, they consulted with Donna Cesan, director of community development in Adams. She said Cesan urged them to form a private entity that would own the theater, making it eligible to qualify for tax incentives.

Their model was the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield.

They bought it, only later finding their plan unworkable.

"Over the years, this (ownership) structure that worked so well for the Colonial has not proven to be as helpful for us in Adams," Simopoulos said.

Cesan said Adams encouraged Topia's founders when the project emerged, eager then — and still — to press improvements on Park Street, where 19th-century architecture continues to define the community's main artery.

Despite early backing from Adams, Simopoulos feels the town's priorities shifted away from Topia, to projects like the Greylock Glen development.

"We believe that if the town had focused its energy and resources on restoring the old Adams theater and helped renovate the building as promised originally, it would be up and running," she said.

Cesan said the town's backing was real and sustained, helping Topia secure over $300,000 in grants.

"It had a lot of promise, and the town was extremely supportive of it over the years," Cesan said of the project.

"No community has the luxury of focusing on one project at a time," she said. "From my perspective, Topia was never able to develop and implement a business plan in which the funding agencies had confidence."

"There's a lot of disappointment all around," Cesan said. "It maybe does take a change in leadership to make it happen."

Market views

Nathan Girard, the listing agent and Royal Property Group partner, said he has shown the property a few times, including to a Texas theater company. To help draw interest, Topia Arts Center is making available the plans it created for theater renovations. The performance space has a new stage and rows of donated seats, but remains largely unfinished.

Girard acknowledges that a buyer must come ready to invest. "The cost (of renovations) is in the millions. It's a major undertaking. When you get into the theater, it's very raw. It's hard to raise the funding to get this off the ground," he said.

That's something Heilman, Simopoulos and a shifting roster of Topia Arts Center board members know well.

In a post on the center's website, topiaarts.org, the women note that they acted in 2005 to save the theater at a time when it faced foreclosure under another owner.

Simopoulos said she explained to town officials at the time that while the limited liability company was prepared to buy the property, taking out a $100,000 mortgage to do so, the owners did not believe they would be able to come up with money needed to renovate it.

For years, the center held fundraising events and issued appeals to donors. The Topia Cafe opened for a time for events.

When asked to tally all the financial help that did flow to Topia, Simopoulos provided a chart breaking it down to the dollar.

Over its run, Topia Arts Center secured $37,500 from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and more than $130,000 from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation, which backed the venture in installments from 2005 to 2010. Its money went to buy theater equipment, including lights, and to pay for designs, grant writing and marketing and one other need that stemmed from the building's many vacant years: mold removal.

The Cultural Council of Northern Berkshire also stepped forward, providing $4,000 in grants issued in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

The center project also received $22,105 in community donations, led by gifts of $5,000 each from South Adams Savings, Adams Cooperative Bank and Greylock Federal Credit Union. The Barrett Grant Fund for Adams kicked in $10,000.

Simopolous said grants were used, in part, to ready the project for a large-scale rehab.

Schematic plans for a $6 million revitalization of the center, to be done in several phases, along with a preliminary business plan were unveiled during a public meeting at Town Hall in 2008.

But the financial infusions did not allow Topia to make the great leap forward that its founders imagined.

Board member Mara Wooley at one point said the cause needed one simple thing: "More money."

Like Cesan, Girard believes the project, if it can be rekindled, would bring economic benefits to Adams.

"Someone's going to come along. It's going to happen eventually," Girard said. "If it got up and running, it could totally change the landscape of the town.

One feature of the listing, though, might discourage prospective buyers.

A Subway outlet holds a lease for part of the street-front property until Jan. 24, 2023, narrowing the available Park Street footprint for any new arts organization.

While the restaurant lease provides income, it impairs any new organization's ability to make a dramatic physical statement through its presence.

Girard said the prospective buyers from Houston were dismayed by the Subway lease.

Still, he believes the property will appeal to the right buyer.

Simopoulos said the Topia board continues to meet. And she said the center is willing to assist a new owner however it can.

"If there is an entity that wants to proceed in this direction, we have laid the groundwork," she said.

"If, for example, there is a theater group that already has a nonprofit status, the arts center will move out of the building and the new nonprofit can move in," she said. "If there is a need for the arts center to remain, we are happy to create a partnership. We would let the new entity take the lead."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.