By John Toole
---- — DERRY — Gov. Maggie Hassan and the Executive Council awarded a $20,000 grant last week to the Greater Derry Arts Council for work at the Derry Opera House.
It comes at a good time.
The grant would fund plaster and painting work in the second-floor opera house in the Adams Memorial Building downtown.
But more work is on the way.
Public works director Mike Fowler was scheduled to brief the Town Council this week on $150,000 in proposed renovations affecting the balcony, closed late last year, and the roof.
A public hearing is expected to be held March 4 so people can comment on what would be a supplemental town budget appropriation.
Commissioner Van McLeod of the state Department of Cultural Resources asked the governor and Executive Council to approve the $20,000 grant.
“The interior has not been painted in 30 years,” McLeod told them in a memo. “The funds will support repairs to the plaster work and paint on all walls and ceiling surfaces located in public areas of the opera house.”
That the arts council will get the grant is good news for the town and supporters of the arts.
“We believe that is a wonderful situation,” Fowler said. “There definitely is a need for fresh plaster work and painting.”
Fowler credited arts council trustees Dave Nelson and Matt Cahoon for their efforts in pushing to obtain the grant.
An inspection last year turned up structural concerns, prompting officials to shut the balcony.
“We can’t take a chance on anybody’s lives,” Fowler said.
That reduced seating capacity by more than a third, putting 100 seats out of use in the 375-seat theater.
Repairs are estimated to cost $150,000, he said.
There is about $20,000 available in the budget and the additional $130,000 could be drawn from a capital reserve fund, so there would be no impact on taxpayers, Fowler said.
Fowler hopes to pursue bids and award a contract by May 15 at the latest.
Plans call for closing the theater from Aug. 4 through Aug. 29 to complete the work.
“We are working hand-in-hand to minimize impacts on any shows they have,” Fowler said.
Officials have chosen a time in August when there is nothing scheduled.
The Derry Opera House is more than just a cultural center for the community and downtown.
Presidential candidates often use it. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry did during the 2012 campaign.
Opened in 1904, the Adams Memorial Building was donated by benefactor Benjamin Adams. Besides the opera house, the building houses offices of the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, the Derry Housing Authority and the town museum.
None of those offices will be closed during the renovation, Fowler said.
The opera house itself also provides an economic boost to the community.
Fowler said people attending shows will visit nearby restaurants.
“That’s a positive,” he said. “It’s definitely an asset for the community.”
“Tremendously special,” is how Cahoon describes the opera house.
He said a community survey ranked the opera house among the two or three things the people of Derry are most proud.
The opera house is important to the community both because of its cultural impact and its location at the gateway to town, Cahoon said.
“It is a quintessential New England opera house,” he said. “Not everybody has them.”