NORWAY — The Norway Maine Opera House Corp. is set to buy the structurally damaged Opera House, if the town is able to negotiate the purchase of the three-story brick edifice on Main Street.

“We’re ready to move,” said Selectman Bruce Cook, who serves with the group as a representative of Downtown Norway. The group was incorporated with the state of Maine in 2000 as a 501 (3) (c) charitable organization. Cook said the group is waiting to see what happens with negotiations between the town and building owner Barry Mazzaglia of Bitim Enterprises, based in Londonderry, N.H.

Town Manager David Holt said Tuesday that attorney James Belleau of the Auburn, who represents the town in an court action against Mazzaglia, is reviewing the appraisal completed last month by Patric Amidon of Amidon Appraisal Services in Portland. He said he believes no contact has been made yet with Mazzaglia.

Last week, the Board of Selectmen unanimously voted to begin negotiations with Mazzaglia rather than take the building by eminent domain. The move is being made to ensure the unsafe building is secured.

A portion of the Opera House roof collapsed Sept. 21, 2007, severing a sprinkler pipe and flooding the first-floor businesses. Since that time, officials have grown increasingly concerned about the stability of the building and lack of response from the owner, who has turned down offers from the town to purchase the building several times and now says  he is close to bankruptcy, according to Belleau.

Two engineering studies have deemed the structure to be “unsafe to the public and neighboring property” and officials have become convinced that the structure continues to deteriorate, causing not only an unsafe situation for downtown but an unfavorable economic one.

The vote to begin negotiations came with the stipulation that the negotiated priced be within the “framework” of Selectman Bill Damon’s offer of $200,000 and that if Mazzaglia does not agree to sell by Nov. 15, the negotiation will be considered concluded. If he gives no answer by that date, the board will also assume that is a “no” answer for a sale, according to Selectman Warren Sessions.

Discussion about the negotiations was conducted in executive session so no other details were available about the process.

Cook, who was not a member of the original Norway Maine Opera House Corp., said the founding group included Bob Andrews, who Cook said has now left the area, Charlene Chase and Connie Allen.

Cook, Chase, Allen and Planning Board Chairman Dennis Gray are current members of the corporation, with Gray also representing Norway Downtown, Cook said.

“They (the corporation) tried to buy the building when it was for sale (back then,)” Cook said. “The price was over $200,000.”

This time, if the town is able to successfully negotiate the purchase, Cook said it will use the money donated by Bill and Beatrice Damon. No money has passed hands yet between the Damons and the town, but Cook said the money could be used to pay Mazzaglia the negotiated price.

If negotiations fail and the town decides to take the building by eminent domain, the donated money might also be used to pay Mazzaglia the market price of the building, Cook said. If Mazzaglia decides to appeal the takeover, whatever the court sets as a fair and equitable price would have to be paid.

The newly appraised value of the building has not been released, pending negotiations.

Cook said he is concerned about using the eminent domain process because of the amount of time it would take.

“If we have to use the courts (for eminent domain) it will drag on,” he said. But if necessary, Cook said he is agreeable to an eminent domain process. “We just want to get it back into local ownership,” he said.

One concern the group has is the price of insuring the building, if the corporation takes it over. He estimated it would cost between $6,000 and $8,000 per year.

“It is really complicated and expensive,” Cook said. “That’s not to say we won’t do it.”

The bottom line, he said, is the building is unsafe.

“We have a dangerous building there. Part of it at least falling down is a very real option. We have winter right in front of us,” he said, referring to the fear that accumulating snow on the roof will cause it to collapse.

If the building collapses and has to be taken down, it could cost about $100,000, he said.

Regardless of whether the town owns the building or not, if it should collapse, Cook said he does not believe the town will be held liable for any damage.

“No,” he said. “My understanding is the town is not liable since we have been in court. It can be shown the town is moving in the right direction.”

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The image of the Opera House clock tower and adjacent buildings are reflected in Pennesseewassee Stream from Pikes Hill Road in Norway.

The Opera House, topped with a clock tower, was built in 1894 and anchors the town’s National Historic District.

It was constructed by the Norway Building Association, 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 ballroom and balcony on the upper floors played host to the
community life of Norway, including concerts, balls, traveling minstrel
shows, theater performances, National Guard musters, town meetings and
high school graduation ceremonies. The top stories have been unused
since a movie theater closed in the 1970s, and the five ground-floor
storefronts have had occupants off and on over the years.

Real estate developer Barry Mazzaglia of Bitim Enterprises in Londonderry, N.H., bought it for $225,000 in 2003 after it was placed on the
state’s Most Endangered Historic Properties list by Maine Preservation
of Portland.

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