Havre de Grace has ambitious, $2.6 million plan to renovate old opera house

An ambitious, $2.6 million plan to renovate the Havre de Grace opera house on Union Avenue would include joining the former city hall building with the neighboring firehouse, installing a first floor theater and making the entire building accessible to handicapped people.

Meghan Simmons, the city's director of economic development, gave a presentation on the opera house plans to Mayor Wayne Dougherty and members of the city council during Tuesday night's council meeting.

In her presentation, Simmons noted that the historic, two-story building, at 121 N. Union Ave., has several deficiencies, including a lack of an HVAC system, a lack of access to disabled persons and several structural issues. As a result, Simmons said, the building is underutilized by the community, with only three non-profits using it on a limited basis.

With the necessary renovations, Simmons said, the building could provide access to the disabled, serve more community performing arts groups and hold more functions such as conferences and presentations. It could also result in increased foot traffic and revitalization for the Main Street District. It would even provide disability access to the adjacent No. 2 firehouse, whose second floor meeting area, like the second floor of the opera house, is not handicapped accessible.

"By renovating the opera house, restoring and upgrading the second floor theater, and making the building ADA accessible with supporting theater space on the first floor, we will open many doors for different organizations and groups in Havre de Grace and Harford County," Simmons said.

The design was developed by the architecture firm Westlake Reed & Leskosky, which was contracted in June 2012.

Simmons said the renovation project is shovel ready, with initial construction plans set to be delivered April 2013. The total cost of the renovation is $2.6 million, with a $1.2 million state bond issue request already introduced before the Maryland General Assembly. The remaining $1.4 million will come from federal grants, capital funding from the city and Harford County, as well as private fund-raising.

Bill Price, a member of a special committee tasked by Council President Randy Craig with seeking improvements to the opera house, said that the committee would be creating a nonprofit foundation to request funds from local businesses and stakeholders and to serve as a funding source for the opera house in the future.

"Through the support of the community, we will have a lasting legacy for citizens now and future generations for Havre de Grace," Price said.

Various council members and the mayor thanked Simmons and Price, as well as the rest of the committee for their work in moving the project forward and working with the community, noting the project has come a long way and is of vital importance to the city.

"I congratulate you, and the committee has worked so hard in helping see this vision move forward, and I know this isn't going to happen overnight, and I really appreciate your work and all of those volunteers," Craig said. "This is going to be a big important project for our city and our downtown.

According to Simmons' PowerPoint presentation to the council, the planned finances for the project include $250,000 from Harford County, $250,000 from the city government, state community legacy grants totaling $300,000, $180,000 in federal community development block grants, a $100,000 grant funneled through the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway and $400,000 from fund-raising and private donations.

The $1.2 million state bond issue request is in HB-571 introduced by Del. Mary-Dulany James, who lives in the city. It has been assigned to the House Appropriations Committee, on which James is a member, but did not have a hearing date as of Wednesday afternoon. According to the legislation, the city would have to set up a matching fund, no part of which can come, either directly or indirectly, from other state funds.

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