AUBURN – The city will help pay to study the future of the Great Falls Performing Arts Center, councilors agreed.

The city will split the cost of a feasibility study with the Community Little Theater, the biggest tenant in the building. The theater group hopes to take over the building – either purchasing the property from the city or agreeing to a long-term lease.

“We need to determine if we even want to continue,” said Stan Spilecki, member of the CLT’s board. “There are a lot of questions everyone has. But that’s the point of doing this study now.”

The study would look at the structural integrity of the building, determine its potential as a stand-alone performing arts center, asses the parking needs for the site and recommend uses for the land surrounding it. Councilors agreed to split the cost of the study in half with the theater group – up to $30,000.

It was good news for Councilor Bruce Bickford.

“We brought this forward from our budget discussions, and now we’re seeing the possibility of a true exit for the city,” Bickford said.

Groups including Community Little Theatre and the Edward Little Drama Club call the building home. The city took over the 53,000-square-foot building from the School Department in 1997 and has been responsible for building maintenance since.

A state fire marshal inspected the building in 2003 and found 74 fire code violations. Some repairs, such as lighting emergency exits and covering exposed wires were easy. Fire marshals wanted sprinkler and alarm systems installed and called for other structural repairs.

The city has replaced sprinklers for the building’s gym and auditorium. Work would continue through 2012, and that calls for heating system upgrades, new parking lots, new safety exits, an elevator and waterproofing. The total for repairs is $1.9 million through 2012.

The theater group, backed by state and federal grants, would be responsible for most of the future costs, according to negotiations between the theater’s board and acting City Manager Laurie Smith.

“Although it wouldn’t relieve all of the pressure on the city, it’s great to see something like this go ahead,” Bickford said.

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