NORWAY — Selectmen directed the town attorney Thursday to draw up
papers to take ownership of the damaged and deteriorating Opera House by eminent domain.

The decision came almost two years after the three-story brick
landmark on Main Street was flooded when a section of the sagging roof collapsed under
the weight of water. Since then, two engineering studies have deemed the structure to be “unsafe to the public and neighboring property.” The upper floors have been vacant for decades and engineers found rotted roof supports that had given way.

In June, owner Barry Mazzaglia of Bitim Enterprises in New Hampshire was ordered by Oxford County Superior Court to stabilize the 1894 edifice. A hearing is set for Sept. 4 on a request by the town for a permanent order for that purpose.

Town attorney James Belleau said he met with Mazzaglia on Monday at the courthouse and Mazzaglia talked about his finances.

“His
position on Monday was, ‘I don’t have any money. I’m on the verge of
bankruptcy,’ I think he said,” Belleau told the board.

Officials have become convinced that the Opera House continues to
deteriorate, causing an unsafe situation for the downtown and an unfavorable economic one.

“People have stopped buying (downtown properties) because of that
Opera House,” said Andrea Burns, president of Norway Downtown. “We are hurting desperately because of the status of the
building.”

The eminent domain action requires a formal vote by the board and subsequent town meeting approval. The initial action will allow the town legal access to the building to do an appraisal and to try to keep the owner from tearing it down. If the court approves, the town will take ownership of the Opera House and then decide what to do with it.

The vote by selectmen to start eminent domain proceedings is
expected to take place at the board’s Aug. 20 meeting. A town meeting
will be scheduled shortly after that, Town Manager David Holt said.

While the board agreed that they would like to see it remain
standing, it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to make it safe. “It will take $100,000 to $200,000 just to stabilize the back wall,” Holt said. “The town has no resources.”

The board was also told it could ask the court to declare it a “dangerous building,” which under state law would
require it to be torn down. The action is generally very quick, Belleau
said, noting Lewiston officials recently took that course to
demolish the burned-out Cowan Mill in less than a week.

The Opera House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered the heart of the Norway Historic Downtown District, was placed on the Most Endangered Buildings list by Maine Preservation in 2003.

It is considered the anchor of the downtown Historic District with its first-floor storefronts, ballroom, theater and balcony on the upper floors, and its distinctive bell tower housing an E. Howard clock. It was once the center of community life, with concerts, balls, dances, traveling minstrel shows, theater performances, National Guard musters, town meetings and high school graduations.

It was built by the Norway Building Association, and then owned by the town from 1920 to the mid-1970s, and then by a succession of private owners for the past 30 years or so. The upper floors have been vacant since the ’70s and the bottom floor since the flooding in September 2007. Mazzaglia bought it in 2003 for $225,000 and did not have it insured at the time of the roof collapse.

Selectman Bill Damon offered Mazzaglia $250,000 for it this year and was turned down.

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