AUBURN — Community Little Theatre leaders plan to ask the city of Auburn to give them the former Great Falls School building instead of spending thousands of taxpayer dollars to tear it down.
If the Auburn City Council refuses and proceeds with plans to raze the Great Falls Performing Arts Center, CLT will continue a search it has started, mostly in Lewiston, for a new home, said Karen Mayo, president of the theater's Board of Directors.
Many theater supporters at a town hall-style meeting Saturday seemed fired up about lobbying the City Council to change plans to destroy the building.
Earlier this month, the council voted 4-3 to move all tenants out of the Great Falls Arts Center by the end of May and to demolish the building in June because the center is losing about $30,000 a year.
Theater supporters expressed outrage that the council not only took such a vote, but that it did so without giving the public any notice or any say.
Deb Desjardins was angry about the decision and said she would be at future council meetings.
“Do I understand this is a liability to the city?" she said. "Certainly, but I also feel that the responsibility for the building being in the condition it's in rests squarely on the shoulders of the city,” she said to applause.
Michelle Jacobus said the council “making a decision like that without notifying the public is at best unethical.” She questioned how that kind of vote could be valid, and asked whether it would be challenged.
Others called the council action a blessing in disguise, because it could bring about a resolution and a home for the theater and others who use the building.
While acknowledging the former high school building is in need of much repair, they said it's the best place around for a theater.
“This is a space that is really hard to replicate,” said Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce President Chip Morrison. “There isn't a stage in this community that has this kind of stuff. We have a gem, and we've been getting it for a relatively good bargain. But the city has benefited just incredibly. All the money spent on preparing plays and ticket sales stays in the community."
To save $20,000 to $30,000 a year, “they're willing to spend a couple of million dollars to tear it down?” Morrison said to applause. The four councilors who voted to raze the building “care nothing about the arts, for sure, and maybe not about the community either,” Morrison said.
Dick Rosenberg agreed, saying, “Probably three-quarters of the City Council has never been in this building.”
Developer Lee Griswold, who owns the Hilton Garden Inn, said he was “shocked, dismayed, upset" to hear of the council's vote. "There's no other building in the area that begins to compare to the place we're in," he said. "It is a wonderful space.”
No decision is final, Griswold said, recommending some of the anger and passion “we theater people are so famous for” be channeled into trying to get a deal with the city. CLT must get control of the building, he said.
Griswold estimated that if the city tears the building down, it will cost taxpayers $500,000 to $600,000 and the city would have to deal with environmental issues, such as asbestos.
When the city is asked to give the building to CLT, Griswold suggested the city be asked to grant a five-year window in which it would be responsible for building code violations. “That would be a worthy use of some of that money they'd otherwise spend to raze it,” he said.
Mayo said members would be alerted of future City Council meetings at which the Great Falls building will be discussed. CLT board member Bruce Bickford, a former city councilor, said he expected the topic to come up at the Dec. 6 council meeting.