Opera house backers seeing renewed energy and vision
VERGENNES — In 1993, a couple feet above the Vergennes city offices a mixture of fallen plaster and pigeon droppings blanketed the abandoned Vergennes Opera House floor.
New Friends of the Vergennes Opera House (FVOH) interim president Gerianne Smart, then a volunteer and later a longtime FVOH head, remembers well the days when hard labor mixed with a distant vision for the future of the city’s theater, now well more than 100 years old.
Those efforts eventually sparked $1.5 million in fundraising that paid not only for theater renovations, but also for many improvements to City Hall — including a new roof and furnace and repointing of its brick exterior.
But in recent years, FVOH has struggled to make ends meet in the renovated theater. The group’s board dwindled to five, its only employee was laid off, a troubled sprinkler project consumed volunteers’ time and energy, and an infusion of city cash helped keep the operation afloat.
However, memories of the early 1990s now make Smart confident FVOH can get back on track.
“Think about what we did 20 years ago. It was roll your sleeves up, get your hands on the shovel or the crowbar, start sweeping, clean up, rebuild,” Smart said. “Now, we have an incredible space with no debt and nothing but our imaginations.”
In the past few months, the board has grown to 14 and held what Smart called a productive July meeting, the sprinkler project just needs an inspection to be complete, FVOH withdrew a request to city officials for more funding, and a summer survey showed strong opera house support.
Smart called that result not surprising, but heartening, as the new board moves to breathe more life into the space.
“I think the universal agreement is this space should be used. Used, used, used,” Smart said. “People feel ownership of this space, so we need things happening in here, and we need a variety of things happening in here.”
CITY AND THEATER
Also heartening, Smart said, is the support FVOH has received from Vergennes officials, who had a lot to do with the theater’s debt-free status — and resolving the related sprinkler project, a related problem.
FVOH was several years ago required by state law to put in sprinklers for larger gatherings. It has been operating under a waiver that requires a theater volunteer to monitor events for fire safety, an arrangement that could have been revoked at any time.
The sprinkler project — which will also protect city offices — grew complicated when it was discovered the original installation could not pump water up to the balcony. That meant an expensive pump was needed, which meant three-phase power had to be installed, which meant the cost grew and new grants had to be obtained and existing grants retained — all of which meant a burden on volunteers.
“This was a real draw on their energy,” Smart said. “It was in the way of probably putting their energy in things that were more specialized in running a space like this.”
Aldermen loaned FVOH money until the project was done, an amount FVOH will repay when it receives its funding for the finished job. Smart said City Manager Mel Hawley also helped tie up the loose ends for a project for which Vergennes is sharing the cost.
“Mel Hawley just really focused in on getting whatever was needed,” Smart said.
The result was $15,000 for FVOH that had been tied up in the project, funds that put the theater in the black.
Smart sees FVOH’s responsibility as the theater, and the city’s as the building.
“We don’t want to ask the city for operational dollars. That’s on us,” Smart said. “We have this facility, a great building with a new roof, a new furnace, an airhandling system, and a stairwell, and carpeting, and beautiful windows … and everything gorgeous because of the Friends. The city has this envelope that is nice and tidy and in good shape.”
The resolution of the sprinkler situation and the city’s financial flexibility is freeing the FVOH board to focus on its mission.
“In an amazing way, we have this amazing building, done, thank you very much, with a bow on it, and no debt,” Smart said. “And nothing but visioning to do. That’s what we have to do.”
That visioning started with a meeting in April attended by 50 theater supporters. One result was Smart agreeing to take over as the interim president; she intends to step down in November.
As well as providing what Smart said was a shot of energy, attendees also came up with priorities for FVOH for creating a “road map” to success — notably money, vision, educational outreach and management.
Smart said focusing on those larger issues will help FVOH handle the essential details. She used money as an example.
“Programming is one of the things you need to do to raise money. Working on your membership drive is probably an important way to deal with money,” she said. “It starts to deal with the other things when you deal with the bigger issues.”
The existing five board members there also acknowledged they could not do it all, Smart said.
“They realized they needed more help,” Smart said. “Five people can get exhausted very quickly managing a space when they don’t feel like it’s successful because they’re being pulled in a million directions.”
By July, the board had 14 members: Shanon Atkins, Darren Donovan, Jason Fearon, Bethany Farrell, Jill Murray-Killon, Geoff Nelson, Susan Nelson, Matteo Palmer, Allison Rimmer, Aaron Robertson, Susan Schaefer, Smart, Susan Burk Walsh and Suzanne Wyckoff; and a liaison from the city council, Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly.
“It was a great positive step for the opera house,” Smart said. “And I can’t tell you how pleased I am with this group.”
At the board’s Aug. 19 meeting, members will create committees on facilities, hospitality, programming, fundraising, rentals, publicity and finance.
They will also review information collected this summer by Middlebury College student Annie Powers, who surveyed residents at five restaurants, a swim meet, a farmers’ market and French Heritage Day. Powers discovered 87 percent of respondents had been to the opera house at least 12 times in the past year, and would like to see more drama, dance and music at the theater.
Powers also provided detailed information from theaters in a dozen other communities on how they operate.
Smart said the board should find much that will allow FVOH to move forward without reinventing the wheel.
“We have from all these places exactly how they run their operations,” Smart said.
For the time being, the board will not hire anybody; if there is to be another employee someday, Smart said, the hire will be part of a long-term, carefully considered plan.
“One of the great things about having committees and a robust board is we will not be working this entire building,” she said. “In that process we will know what’s needed, a full-time person, a part-time person, no person.”
Some specific changes are in the works. The board has discussed having an office and a ticket booth downstairs when the Vergennes Police Department moves to new headquarters by early next year, and Smart said FVOH members are excited about creating a “courtyard” area in front of city hall around the theater’s post-like marquee, which is now being renovated.
As for FVOH, Smart is optimistic that careful thought and work now will ensure its future. And, she said, she is confident that she will be able to step down as interim president as planned in November.
“I firmly believe … that the leadership will emerge from this team,” she said. “From my perspective it’s so exciting to witness.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]
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