New sprinklers on tap for city opera house

VERGENNES — Earlier this month, Vergennes Opera House officials learned they would get a key piece of funding in their quest to install sprinklers in the City Hall theater: The Vermont Arts Council awarded the opera house a $20,000 Cultural Facilities Grant to support the project.
After adding the grant to a $32,588 Vermont Downtown Development Board tax credit the theater was granted in 2009, opera house executive director Jackson Evans said board members are confident they can raise the rest of the money for the $65,000 project, which they hope will begin next month.
“At that point we’ll be pretty close (to the financial target),” Evans said. “We’re really planning to roll out our fund-raising efforts.”
At their Tuesday meeting, Vergennes aldermen voted unanimously to join the effort, earmarking about $22,000 to add sprinkler protection for the first floor of City Hall to the second-story opera house project.
City Manager Mel Hawley said discussion on whether to do so was quick.
“We’re going to get involved with that project,” Hawley said.
Aldermen in fact spent more time pondering how to keep city offices running while the sprinklers were being installed, a process that could take several weeks.
“This project is going to be extremely disruptive to the operation. How to make this work and continue to serve the public is not going to be an easy task,” Hawley said. “We have some work to do to figure out the logistics.”
It will not be difficult for the city to pay for its share. Hawley said a City Hall capitalization fund has about $19,000 in it, and some or all of that will be used for the sprinklers.
The rest will come from the Tower Fund, which is supported by rental agreements with cellular phone companies who pay to have broadcast antennas hung on the city’s former water tower next to City Hall.
And, Hawley said, he has just signed an agreement with Verizon Wireless to become the fourth company to lease space on the water tower, subject to development review board approval of a small building at the tower’s base. Verizon will pay $2,000 a month for the privilege, bringing the city’s annual take for antenna rental to nearly $100,000.
The sprinklers will also be a boost to opera house revenue, Evans said. A change in Vermont’s fire laws that took effect in October limits the number of guests at opera house receptions and parties to 99 unless sprinklers are installed; previously that figure had been 299, the same as for opera house concerts. Sprinklers will also allow the addition of up to 20 seats.
“The changes in the fire code have really limited how we’ve been able to use the space, and that has really limited how we’ve been able to raise funds,” Evans said.
The new law had made a dent in the theater’s ability to host fund-raising events or to be rented out for parties.
“We’ll be able those have these larger gala-type events,” Evans said. “A lot of organizations rent the space to hold fund-raising events for their own organizations.”
The opera house board has three bids in hand and hopes to start the work soon — and complete the project in time to hold a dance on March 6, both to celebrate the progress and to close the remaining funding gap.
“Hopefully we can select a contractor within the next couple of weeks … and start it by early February,” Evans said.
Aldermen also at their Tuesday meeting continued to discuss the property and financial issues surrounding the upcoming end of the Vergennes ID school board, a hold over from the creation of Vergennes Union Elementary School.
Residents this past March voted that board out of existence, with a formal expiration date of this coming June 30. The board has operated the city pool and owns the land that hosts VUES and city recreation facilities.
Hawley continues to express concern that the board still will owe one more $10,000 payment on a pool improvement bond, one that he does not want to see the city assume. For one thing, he’s not sure of the legality of the situation.
“I don’t think you can dissolve with a $10,000 bill in your hand,” Hawley said.
He also said he has determined it would be much cheaper for city taxpayers if the bond payments were funneled through the school budget, not the municipal budget.
“The way that I calculate it … that $10,000 costs the homesteads in Vergennes $2,500 (in the VUES budget),” Hawley said.
As a result, Hawley suggests keeping the ID board in existence until after that payment is made, something he said he believes the law and the Town Meeting Day article wording would permit.
“I’m going to press for the Vergennes ID board to exist for another nine or 10 months,” he said.
Aldermen also heard from Roland Guyette, who has helped maintain the city pool for years. Hawley said it was critical for aldermen to understand what it would mean for the public works department to do all of what Guyette has done and to plan to take it over, and said it was also vital for Guyette to write down all of the considerable work he does.
“If we take this pool over … two or three people need to know what needs to be done down there,” he said.

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