LePage freezing of funding could imperil Norway Opera House renovation

NORWAY — The town's $1.1 million Opera House renovation project could be in jeopardy following Gov. Paul LePage's freezing of at least some of a $25 million bond issue approved by statewide voters in 2010.

Leslie H. Dixon/Sun Journal

Volunteers have been working to clean out the six storefronts and cellars of the Norway Opera House in anticipation of going out to bid on a $1.1 million renovation project within the next few weeks. One of the storefronts, above, features a decorative tin ceiling with two chandelier medallions, built-in bookcases and wood floors.

Town Manager David Holt called the move “stunning” and “unfathomable.”

Norway received a $400,000 Communities for Maine's Future matching grant in September 2011. The money was part of a $25 million bond initiative approved by Maine voters on June 8, 2010. Of those funds, $3.5 million was allocated to the CMF program for downtown revitalization in Maine communities.

Eleven communities, including Norway and Livermore Falls, won money for their projects, which were expected to help economically revitalize their downtowns and put scores of people to work.

That $400,000, coupled with other tax credits and donations, was being used to renovate the six first-floor storefronts at the Norway Opera House and to make other improvements to protect the investment and success of the project.

"(LePage) didn't even notify us," Holt said. "I got word third-hand and have checked into it, and it is in fact true. It's just an inconsiderate, unfathomable action on his part."

The news came as a blow to the scores of officials and residents who have worked for the past five years to save the iconic 1894 building.

On Tuesday, the town transferred the Norway Opera House deed to the Norway Opera House Corp., which joined Norway Savings Bank as a financial partner in the project. The $1.1 million renovation project was expected to go out to bid within the next two weeks.

“We're pulling out all the stops,” said Bruce Cook, a member of the Norway Opera House Corp., who was continuing his volunteer work Thursday to clean out the storefronts in readiness for the renovation project. Cook said corporation members and officials are calling state and federal legislators and officials, trying to reverse the governor's action.

Neither the governor's office nor the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development would comment on the issue Thursday.

Holt said he received an email Thursday morning from Skowhegan officials about the governor's move. He confirmed through a call with the Economic and Community Development Department that Norway's funding was frozen.

“I've never seen anything like it,” Holt said.

The matching $400,000, plus the tax credits and donations, were the financial force behind the project, he said.

The competitive grant awards provided funding for projects that restore and revitalize key buildings in communities and projects that are considered catalysts for local jobs.

In addition to Norway and Livermore Falls, the communities that received grant funding were Bath, Belfast, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport, Monmouth, Rockland, Skowhegan, Unity and Winthrop. It is unclear how many projects were affected by the freeze.

The town of Livermore Falls received a $400,000 CMF grant to redevelop the Lamb Block on Depot Street. Livermore Falls Town Manager Kristal Flagg said Thursday afternoon she intended to find out what happened and whether the freeze would affect the Lamb Block project, which is nearing the construction phase.

Holt said the tax credits are time-sensitive and the town has only two years to spend the grant money. A year has already gone by, and with the freezing of the $400,000, it could scuttle the project.

“We've spent lots and lots of time and money ramping up to make this complicated project work,” Holt said of the community-wide, award-winning effort to save the Opera House. “If he pulls the rug on that just arbitrarily on his own consideration, that's causing us lots of issues.”

Holt said the town has already invested some $100,000 in architectural, engineering and other costs that could be lost if the project is closed down.

The Opera House, topped with a clock tower, once served as the center for community events. Constructed by the Norway Building Association on Main Street, it was owned by the town from 1920 to the mid-1970s, and by a succession of private owners for the past 30 or so years. The upper floors have been vacant for decades. In 2007, the roof partially collapsed, leaving empty storefronts and an unstable building.

The town took the building by eminent domain from a private owner and paid for the stabilization of the back wall using in part a $200,000 donation from Selectman Bill Damon and his wife, Bea.

ldixon@sunjournal.com

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Comments

Why?

That is the question that has to be answered: why did he freeze the funding that was already approved?

He won't state his reasons. He's a fool who thinks that just because he can do something, he should.

That's not a good enough reason.

He is the worst governor I've seen in this state. He's brought shame and scorn from the outside world for his highhandedness and shortsightedness.

In fact, there was one article on an Internet magazine, "Alternet" which named him one of the worst Republican governors in the US-in fact, he was 7th on the list of the top 10.

He's not fit to be governor.

JOANNE MOORE's picture

Short sighted and tragic.........

What a kick in the arse to all the people of Norway who have worked so hard and long to restore this historic building. To see that dream destroyed by the short sighted lump who calls himself a governor. He couldn't govern his way to the outhouse.

But this is what narrow-minded people do. They have no dreams of their own so they destroy the dreams of others. Yes, it is a tragedy. I hope the people of Norway who voted for this tea-bagger jerk think twice before electing any other neanderthal numb nuts.

With the casino opening in Oxford, there are going to be a lot of people who will be visiting the surrounding areas. Norway, with its lake and scenery and historic sites will be a draw. The Opera House is the one building that says Norway. Without it Norway would be just another Main Street. It has been the symbol of Norway for a long time, on badges and official papers and many souvenirs. There are tons of postcards of Main Street and this building, taken throughout the years.

I grew up in Norway. Went to school all my years there, from the little one room kindergarten on Main Street to Norway High School. The Opera House was a thriving part of community life. We had school plays, recitals, dances every Saturday night and even a community theater started by my father called the Pennesseewassee Players, or Penny Players for short, that drew people from all around the area.

The shops on the streetfront were always full of customers, especially the bakery where you could get the best cookies. The bakery smells would permeate the whole building with delicious and sweet aromas. And us kids always seemed to be on hand to "sample" a new recipe the bakers were trying.

I read the Norway Advertiser every Thursday and have followed the revival of the Opera House and the stories written by Leslie Dixon and others about the town's hard work to save it and restore it. It is very sad to see that all this work and effort will be thwarted by some cretin who has no appreciation of anything but his own pleasure and self-importance. Blustering and bellowing like some mad hog in the muck of his own making. Pathetic.

But I firmly believe the Opera House will be there long after that fool is gone and forgotten.

AMY CHAPMAN's picture

Taxpayers already voted for this funding

Bob and Brian, no one is arguing that the economy's not in rough shape...but this grant is part of an economic development bond package that was authorized two years ago by the voters, and therefore it has to be released eventually. Delaying it, as LePage has arbitrarily chosen to do, only jeopardizes the matching funds the town of Norway has already obtained and throws a monkey wrench into a $1.1 million construction project that was slated to go out to bid within the next couple of weeks, providing local jobs now and paying off in the future in a revitalized downtown.

Brian Allen Small's picture

Fact Are Facts

There must be many of these projects that are seeking or have sought funds to complete through out Maine.

Anyone paid attention to the economy as of late?

Hard times will make for hard cuts and just how much can the working taxpayer's afford to have on their backs?

Let blame the Gov for putting a hold on money and lets praise the Pres for spending it to the point the US will never recover is that the game plan here?

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I agree,Brian. However,

I agree,Brian. However, anyone in Norway with a dog in the hunt will see it differently. That's the way it is nowadays; every issue is split down the middle with pros and cons. Short of another 9-1-1, I don't see how that's ever going to change.

No surprise..

It's just an inconsiderate, unfathomable action on his part..does this surprise anyone?? Most of the things this guy does is just that..Inconsiderate and unfathomable

Bob Wright's picture

Frank, the working taxpayers

Frank, the working taxpayers are broke, overworked, and overtaxed! We have no more money! What part of that are you having a hard time understanding?

JOANNE MOORE's picture

B.S. on steroids!!

Maine people approved and voted for this money through bonding.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

How about we just shut everything down

Yup, we're out of money, close all the doors, shut everything down, I guess we'll just wait for money to fall from heaven. In case you haven't noticed, in order to make money you need to spend it. No ones going to give it away. These people are trying to restore six store fronts, presumably not just for decoration. To me they have shown a sincere determination to bring this project to a point that this building will be a potential source of tax income, money into the community, and potential jobs. Sometimes you have to take a gamble. Financial decisions need to be made. I just don't feel LePage is qualified to make those decisions.
If these folks are able to make this project a success, maybe other people will be motivated to restore some of the many vacant store fronts that are increasingly showing up in our downtown's. A vacant building is nothing but a financial drain. I commend these people for their desire to make this work, not just sit back and admit defeat......

FRANK EARLEY's picture

LePage does it again...

If this guy doesn't screw someone at least once a week, I think he goes into withdrawal....

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