NORWAY – A Maine Preservation official said Tuesday that the restoration of the Opera House does pose design and economic challenges, but the historic building is the economic engine that can drive the revitalization of downtown Norway.

“Given the economy, you would have a one-story building in its place,” said Christopher Closs, western and southern field service adviser for Maine Preservation. His comments followed a tour of the 1894 brick building with its imposing clock tower that anchors the downtown National Historic District.

Closs was in town Tuesday to meet with about a dozen state and local officials to give technical assistance. A team is being organized to oversee the resurgence of the Opera House and Closs presented the group with a $1,000 seed grant for the project.

“This type of public and private partnership is absolutely essential,” he said of efforts by local officials and residents, and state agencies to work together to save the heavily damaged three-story building on Main Street. In September 2007, a portion of the sagging roof collapsed under the weight of pooled water. It caused a sprinkler pipe to break and flooded first-floor businesses.

Two engineering studies have deemed the structure to be “unsafe to the public and neighboring property.” Officials say they are convinced the structure continues to deteriorate causing not only an imminent unsafe situation downtown but an unfavorable economic one.

Voters have mandated that the town take the property through eminent domain, stabilize the back wall and find someone else to take it over.

Once the 17,618-square-foot building is stabilized, selectmen say they most likely will turn the building over to a nonprofit entity such as the Norway Maine Opera House Corp., which will then direct its future.

A $200,000 donation from Bill and Beatrice Damon is funding the eminent domain purchase, which has been concluded except for a decision by a judge over how much the town must pay Barry Mazzaglia of Bitim Enterprises in Londonderry, N.H. for it.

A Community Block Development grant and other private and public funds are being used to pay for stabilizing the building.

While the group will address a number of work issues, such as updating an area market study and the Downtown Revitalization Plan, identifying grants and organizing a public capital campaign, Closs said the key will be creating a package if incentives that will lure a developer to the project, said Closs.

“As far as economic development, the Opera House is crucial,” said Linda Walbridge, executive director of the Western Maine Economic Development Council.

Many of the people at the meeting, which was held at the Fare Share on Main Street, went across the street afterward to tour the Opera House. While filled with debris, it retains many of its original features, including stenciling around a chandelier on the ceiling of the theater, woodwork, arch windows and even some of the original theater chairs.

“The Opera House is not going to be easy no matter what scheme we come up with,”  Town Manager David Holt said. “It will be a really big challenge.”

Bricks continue to fall from the upper portion of the back wall which Al Hodson III of Resurgence Engineering and Preservation in Portland said is “extremely unstable.”

Holt said the process to stabilize it is under way with the bid specifications expected to be advertised in the next several weeks and the work expected to begin in October.

The group was told by Mike Johnson of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission’s tax credit program, that tax credits will most likely be available to the future owner of the building. One of the criteria is that the person own the building for at least five years.

“The important thing is to get a developer in the best possible position and to move forward,” Closs said.

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