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Alderman back opera house project with ‘short-term loan’

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen last week agreed to front $52,500 to the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House to allow theater backers to jump-start the opera house’s long-delayed sprinkler project.
Opera house officials told aldermen they could repay the money soon after the work was complete because they had guarantees of a grant and tax credits equal to the $52,500.
However, as City Manager Mel Hawley told aldermen at their April 24 meeting, opera house management was in a financial bind: They could not receive the grant and tax credit until the project was finished, and they did not have enough up-front cash to fund it.
Aldermen agreed unanimously to take the money from the city’s Tower Fund, which is funded by cell-phone companies that pay to hang broadcast equipment from the former water tower behind Vergennes City Hall. Hawley said there was plenty of cash on hand to allow the loan to be made.
Alderman Bill Benton characterized the agreement as “a short-term loan.”
The sprinkler project, now estimated at roughly $85,000, was delayed from early 2011 when it was learned that a $10,000 pump and another $10,000 of electrical upgrades were needed to complete the work over and above an original estimate. Engineers determined that without the pump there would not be enough water pressure to protect the second-story theater’s balcony.
Vergennes officials had already decided to piggyback on the project and install sprinklers on the first floor. In January, aldermen voted to increase the city’s share of the cost from about $22,000 to $35,000, with the money to come from the Tower Fund. The city will save about $800 a year in insurance bills due to the sprinklers.
Aldermen backed the higher city share at the recommendation of Mayor Michael Daniels and City Manager Mel Hawley.
Hawley noted then in an email to Friends of the Vergennes Opera House President Allison Rimmer and theater director Eileen Corcoran that he and Daniels concluded that the pump would also protect parts of City Hall as well as the balcony, thus making it fair for the city to pay more.
The theater needs to install sprinklers because of a change in state law that requires sprinklers for any space that hosts parties of 100 people or more at which alcohol is served.
Renting out the theater to such gatherings has been an important part of the revenue stream for the Vergennes Opera House, which has hosted those parties under a waiver system since the law was passed. Hawley said it is uncertain how much longer state officials would continue to grant waivers.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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