Opera house backers seek city funding

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen are considering a request from Friends of the Vergennes Opera House (FVOH) President Allison Rimmer that the City Hall theater receive $15,000 of ongoing annual city support in response to budget woes brought on by the recession.
Rimmer told aldermen on Dec. 20 that the FVOH will also approach the selectboards in Ferrisburgh, Addison, Panton and Waltham for financial help, much as Bixby Library officials have done — and with much the same rationale.
Rimmer said the theater has proven to be an economic driver for Vergennes since it opened in 1997, and she provided aldermen with a pie chart showing that two-thirds of the ticket buyers for theater events come from outside the immediate Vergennes area.
“We feel support of the opera house would be an appropriate use of civic funds,” she said. “(It has been) a cornerstone of the economic revitalization of Vergennes.”
Rimmer also provided information showing that much of the $1.7 million FVOH has invested in the theater since 1997 has gone to improve the building the theater shares with City Hall. She noted the theater cuts its rental prices by up to 70 percent for local nonprofits and serves as home base for a local theater group and orchestra. She added the opera house has been in use about once every other day in 2010 and 2011.
But Rimmer said donations since 2008 have lagged due to the recession, while the cost of a state-required sprinkler system has spiraled upward.
Theater and city officials learned in early 2010 that the original sprinkler budget of about $65,000 was not enough because a $20,000 pump was needed to push water up to the balcony, and major electrical upgrades — possibly costing another $10,000 — were needed to make the pump work.
Rimmer said FVOH and new executive director Eileen Corcoran have been forced to spend time dealing with the sprinkler project — which is code-mandated if the theater is to continue to host profitable private parties and receptions — at the expense of focusing on promoting the theater and raising funds.
The city in January 2010 agreed to fund its share of sprinkler installation — about $22,000 — to protect first-floor offices. Opera house officials also have a $20,000 grant in hand to help, but were not prepared for the rising bottom line.
“There’s nothing worse than surprises in a project,” said City Manager Mel Hawley, who noted that the city has shared in other project costs over the years.
Given the original terms of the FVOH agreement with city council, Hawley said it is “difficult to ask” aldermen for budget support for the first time since the theater effort started almost 20 years ago.
“When the project was originally presented to the city council … (it was) on the assumption that it actually would be self-sustaining — and it has been self-sustaining for a number of years,” Hawley said. “Now, it appears not that it is impossible for it to be self-sustaining, but I’m hearing for the foreseeable future that it is not self-sustaining.”
Rimmer re-emphasized the theater’s economic impact, and said the original formula worked for many years — until the recession struck. 
“You can see some of the economic stats in the handouts,” she said. “None of us anticipated 2008 would last until 2011.”
Aldermen took no immediate action at their Dec. 20 meeting. Mayor Michael Daniels said he wants to review the “shopping list” of needed theater and building improvements that Rimmer included in the handouts, and then sit down with Hawley to discuss an appropriate response.
“It’s something Mel and I have to talk about,” Daniels said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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