LEWISTON — Nine years after locals took over the Little Canada's St. Mary's Church — creating the Franco American Heritage Center at St. Mary's — the basement hall is finally getting a makeover.
Using $500,000 from a federal grant, the center plans to remove two rows of support columns, rebuild and expand the stage, replace the floor and create a canopied street-level entrance.
Work could begin as soon as mid-August.
"This should become a first-rate facility," said Rita Dube, the center's executive director. "It will be less like an aging parish hall."
To date, the center has spent just under $6 million on the building — several million of which was used to repair the stone exterior of the building. Money was also spent to convert the upstairs' pews and nave with sloped theatrical seating. There was also new lighting and sound equipment added and a stage expansion.
Downstairs, the work has been relatively minor.
It still looks like the place where generations of local people celebrated marriages and baptism. The changes ought to make the center a competitor with every high-end venue in the state, Dube said.
"It will be one of the classiest," she said.
Other changes will include the replacement of the hall's folding tables and aluminum chairs with round, cabaret-style tables and seating for 256 people.
Dube hopes that the changes will create needed revenue, too.
Most of the money the center has received has been spent on needs for the building, with projects going forward as the money comes in.
"We have no mortgage and no debt," Dube said. All of the roughly $1.6 million received from the USDA's Rural Development over the years has been spent on capital projects. The recent $500,000 grant is expected to be the last.
The new project has drawn calls from contractors as far away as Chicago, asking for the chance to bid on the work. Dube told them that the work will be done locally.
"I think it should go to the people who are supporting us," she said.
The first phase of the work is likely to focus on the new entrance. The project's biggest piece, the installation of steel supports to carry the weight of the removed columns, will happen later.
The center hopes to do its best to schedule events such as the annual gala with the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra around the construction, said Richard Martin, the center's program director.
That concert will go as scheduled. Others may change slightly to accommodate the work, Dube said.