Rob Vilas, right, said he’s been “really motivated” to learn to play the mandolin at 317 Main in Yarmouth with Director of Music Chris Moore. Kristen McNerney / The Forecaster

Plans for a 200-seat multipurpose performance space, more classrooms and expanded music programming at 317 Main Community Music Center in Yarmouth got a financial boost last week, thanks to a $1.5 million donation from billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

The nonprofit will put a portion of that gift toward its current capital campaign for improvements, but it will also will decide how to best use the money as a “strategic investment” in its future, said Executive Director John Williams.

Williams didn’t believe it at first when he was contacted three weeks ago and told that Scott and her team had chosen 317 Main as one of 286 non-profits across the country worthy of a gift.

John Williams, executive director at 317 Main Community Music Center in Yarmouth, which has received a $1.5 million donation from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott. Kristen McNerney / The Forecaster

“I wasn’t sure if it was real,” Williams said, adding that Scott’s representative told him he had to keep the news confidential. “It was kind of mysterious and exciting.”

Last Tuesday, the news broke. Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos now married to Dan Jewett, a 1994 graduate of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in Paris, posted on the website Medium that the couple would be giving away a total of $2.7 billion to 286 non-profits across the country.

Williams said Scott’s team informed him that multiple advisors and researchers had found 317 Main worthy of being one of those recipients.

“The donation is very humbling to those who have been working on community music for the past 15 years,” said Fred Frawley, chairman of the 317 Main Board of Directors. “We hope to use this gift as a force-multiplier so that we can reach a lot of people.”

Williams said the donation will help meet “a growing demand for arts and culture education.”

Among its work, 317 Main, launched in 2004, offers private and group music lessons, workshops and summer camps. Financial aid is offered up to 75% on all programs and free programs are offered in area schools and libraries and for various social service organizations through partnerships. It also hosts musical events for the community.

Rob Vilas, who takes private mandolin lessons at 317 Main, described the classes as “one of the best investments” he’s made in his 70 years.

“From the beginning, 317 Main has been about creating a place that was community-centered and equity oriented,” Williams said. “We are deliberate in striving to create a welcoming, friendly and inclusive organization that encourages and supports anyone who is interested in participating with the opportunity to do so.”

To 317 Main’s advantage, Scott’s donation coincided with the launch of the public stage of its capital campaign, focused on doubling the size of the building. Renovations costing $4.5 million are expected to be completed in the fall of 2023, Williams said. Those plans include the addition of a 200-seat multipurpose space for lectures, movies and concerts, and a café and administrative offices. The number of classrooms will double to 22.  So far, the center has raised $3.3 million and plans to use a portion of Scott’s donation for the project.

In terms of the rest of the gift, Williams said 317 Main is putting together a team of advisors to decide how the money will be spent.

“We want to make sure we’re very strategic about this investment,” he said.

One area in need, Williams said, is programming, which includes classes targeted at youth and seniors, as well as community partnerships that involve teaching music in school districts that have cut back on their own arts programs.

“We seek out opportunities in communities in which the arts may be under-valued or arts programs have been cut due to funding shortfalls, and have found that there is no shortage of need,” he said.

The center also plans to focus on its long-term sustainability, with plans to set up working and capital reserve funds, the latter to be used in case of a future event like the pandemic. An innovation fund is also being considered, as well as an endowment.

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