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Without costly upgrades Newmarket’s Rockingham Ballroom may close

Story By Liz Markhlevskaya NEWMARKET —January 10, 2011

Ioanna Raptis photo

Alan and Diane Roma tango on the dance floor of the Rockingham Ballroom Friday night. The historic ballroom has been a venue for live music and ballroom dancing since 1934 and may close if enough money isn’t raised to install a sprinkler system to meet fire code.
Just a week before Christmas dancers were shocked to hear the Rockingham Ballroom may have to close by New Year’s Day.
Many thought Saturday, Dec. 18 was going to be the last dance, and the ballroom might have to close its doors forever.
“Everybody was just stunned,” said Patti Blanchette, a former Newmarket state representative who has been dancing at the ballroom for the past six years.
While the ballroom is a ground-level building and has many exits, the facility does not have a required sprinkler system. Because of the building’s location and a lack of a strong water flow, the project costs are estimated to be $130,000 to $150,000, funds owners Alan and Diane Roma do not have.
Following the announcement on Dec. 18, dancers formed Friends of the Rockingham Ballroom to raise money to help save the business, which has been open since 1934. More than 20 people gathered the following Wednesday to figure out a plan that would show the fire chief the ballroom’s commitment to the project, in hopes of keeping the ballroom open. The first step was hiring an engineer to make a quality plan for the required fire suppression system.
Meeting members raised enough money that night to pay for a retainer for SFC Engineering Partnership, Inc., to get started on the project. “It was really quite moving,” said Blanchette, “There were people of all generations there.”
SFC’s plan is due Feb 10. Until then, the Rockingham Ballroom has an occupancy permit allowing it to remain open. “We are very hopeful that if we can submit a viable plan we could extend that permit,” said Blanchette. “I don’t think anyone wants to see the doors of the ballroom closed.” “This is a major crisis that any business owner would have a difficulty overcoming,” said Blanchette. “They just happen to have their business where it is.”
When the Romas bought the ballroom last August, they knew the center was in a tough situation. Sales were not going as planned, and the money was not there to get started on the sprinkler project, said Alan. However, he just “couldn’t see it close,” and bought the ballroom to keep it open for the community.
“We are the only ballroom I know in New Hampshire that still has live music,” said Alan, who has been dancing there for two years.
But to community members the ballroom is much more than just a 3,600-square-foot dance floor. Many have attended weddings and proms, met their future spouses and participated in various fund-raising events at the center. Some have been coming to the ballroom since the 1940s, said Alan.
“It’s a magnificent place for community members to gather,” said Blanchette. “People are so welcoming there, and make you feel wanted.”
Over the next several months, the ballroom will be hosting a series of fund-raising events, including band and comedy performances, from which proceeds will go exclusively to the sprinkler project.