Housing deal could let Auburn theater group step away from building management

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AUBURN — One thing that leaders of Community Little Theatre have learned is that they’re great at putting on shows.

Acting as building managers is a little more difficult.

“We’ve had this discussion over and over again; our focus should be shows,” CLT President Chris L’Hommedieu said Thursday. “This is what this organization does best.”

A housing development deal with Kevin Bunker of Developers Collaborative might let the theater group get back to doing that.

L’Hommedieu and Bunker presented the plan to a group of about 20 supporters Thursday night. The theater group’s board of directors will decide by next week whether to pursue the project.

“We are at the point where, if we are really going to do this, now is the time to act,” L’Hommedieu said.

The city of Auburn owns the lot and the building, the site of the former Great Falls School. City councilors signed a 99-year lease with CLT in August 2011, giving the group control of the building. The city demolished the western wing of the school, leaving an unpaved parking lot.

The eastern portion of the building is home to the theater and its costume storage space, the gym and some offices.

According to L’Hommedieu, Bunker would take over the theater group’s sublease with the city for the former Great Falls School and build single-bedroom or efficiency apartments on the building’s top floors. The theater would continue to occupy the bottom floor, converting the gym into a two-story workspace, costume storage space and public gallery.

Bunker’s group would build a second three-story building in the parking lot with up to 30 units.

Bunker’s project would be funded in part by tax credits from Maine State Housing Authority and would offer below-market rents for working residents.

“Generally, it works out to rents of, say, $600 per month,” Bunker said. “It’s just enough to cover the operating expenses for the building.”

There’s a lot of work to do before the idea becomes reality, they said. If the board decides to go ahead with the project, directors like to present it to the Auburn Planning Board in July. They’d have to apply for the tax credits by October.

But first, the group must decide. They can continue operating as they have since 2011, working to remodel the building as they go along, or they can take Bunker up on his offer.

L’Hommedieu said the theater group’s annual budget is typically between $180,000 and $200,000 per year. Of that, $60,000 goes to performances — paying licensing fees for shows, printing and set costs — while another $43,000 goes to paying utilities and building maintenance. The theater also pays for snowplowing and property taxes to the city.

“This is still a majestic building, but it’s looking like it’s got some issues,” L’Hommedieu said. “We all know that. It needs a lot of work on the outside, simple things like re-pointing the bricks. That’s really not that simple because it must be done at some point or the building will collapse structurally. It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to just do that, let alone doing the painting and new roofing.”

L’Hommedieu said there is plenty of skepticism surrounding the project. Doing it would mean the theater group would have to share space, possibly with residents. It’s not without risks, he said.

But members Thursday said it was a good offer that could save the group.

“I think we really need to talk about this and move forward,” said John Blanchette, a 31-year member of the group. “Until we have an alternative, we could be one or two bad box offices away from being out of business.”

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