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.
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.