The city of Havre de Grace’s plan to turn the high school’s auditorium into a regional theater to promote the arts “has a lot of merit to it,” Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot said during a tour of the building Wednesday.
“This is the least expensive, biggest return of an existing asset you can possibly imagine,” Franchot said. “The large focus is something that will pay for itself down the road.”
When the new Havre de Grace Middle/High School is complete — scheduled to be done for the start of the 2020-21 school year — the Harford County Board of Education will surplus the existing Havre de Grace High School auditorium and gym to the county, which will then surplus it to the city to assume maintenance and operating responsibility.
Both parts of the building had been slated for demolition, which is funded in the school system’s budget for about $700,000, but Mayor William T. Martin and others in the city have bigger visions.
It would be a complement to the 200-seat Cultural Center of Havre de Grace at the Opera House, which is “truly an example of if you build, they will come,” Martin said during the tour.
A private developer is finishing renovations for the former movie theater downtown that will have 400 seats, he said.
“We can really make Havre de Grace the epicenter of cultural arts,” Martin said. “We really believe in the next decade that will be this city. It’s really a renaissance of the city, and the building here is the key.”
Franchot was in awe of the building, including the acoustics in the auditorium, which have been touted by others as the best in the county.
It’s remarkable when one person can stand on the stage and have a conversation at normal voice levels, Havre de Grace High Assistant Principal Brad Spence said.
Franchot said it’s a really terrific goal from an economic standpoint.
“There’s a lot of demand for the arts, and promotes a lot of spinoff activity,” he said. “If the county supports it, the state should as well.”
Franchot encouraged Havre de Grace to aim high when looking for help with a feasibility study for the building, which is expected to cost $25,000 to $40,000.
The city has estimated the cost to make both buildings ADA compliant and improve the sound and lighting systems will be more than $1 million.
“Don’t be bashful here, it’s got merit to it. Think big and see what we come up with,” Franchot said. “The state bank account is flush with cash. A lot of money that has come in, we have to be careful how to spend it. But this is the type of investment that is not very high compared to some of the other statewide projects but it should be a statewide priority.”
The comptroller likes that it’s a project that makes people happy, he said.
“I love the idea that we would actually, with everybody in this area, create an asset that actually brings a lot of joy to the area,” Franchot said.
Martin said Havre de Grace wanted to put the project on the state’s radar and press upon Franchot, this is not a “nice-to-have building that we have heart strings,” the city doesn’t want to see torn down. It’s a bigger picture.
The comptroller is influential in Annapolis, Martin said.
“We know the governor loves Havre de Grace, the governor loves performing arts, the governor’s wife loves performing arts,” Martin said. “The comptroller can be of great assistance by being advocate in Annapolis and steer us to where funding is available.”