Council Votes 5-2 on Restoration Work for Derry Opera House

Restoration work will be done on the Opera House portion of the Adams Memorial Building, after a split vote by the Town Council.

In his presentation at the March 4 meeting, public works director Mike Fowler said that in a review with structural engineer Jeff Trexler, the department “discovered some issues.” In three separate votes on aspects of the Opera House, the Council voted 5-2 on each motion.

After a review of the roof, stage and ceiling in the opera house, Trexler recommended the town, which owns the building and leases it to the Derry Arts Council, close the balcony.

Fowler had already appropriated $30,000 in his FY 14 budget to reinforce the stage, he said. But after talking with Trexler and the Arts Council, he saw the need for a bigger project.

“In October and November we made more detailed calculations, and tried to decide the most expedient way to go forward,” he said.

Fowler’s first idea was to put the money in the FY 15 budget. A contractor had done an estimate on repairs to the roof and other issues, and provided an estimate of $138,000. Fowler originally thought of expanding that amount to $150,000, the extra amount being a “contingency,” and putting it in the FY 15 appropriations.

But after talks with the Arts Council, he learned that it had been approved for a $20,000 Cultural Resources grant for plaster and painting. After speaking with them, Fowler learned that they could close the building for the month of August, and that the painting, plastering and repairs could be done at the same time, thus disturbing the 1904 building as little as possible.

Fowler emphasized that the repairs would not affect the other three tenants the Derry Historical Museum, the Greater Derry Londonderry Chamber of Commerce, and the Housing and Redevelopment authority.

Fowler then came up with a plan to get the work done using funds from the current fiscal year. He proposed creating an Adams Memorial Opera House Capital Project Fund, taking $130,000 from the Public Works Capital Reserve Fund and placing it in the Adams Memorial fund, and also appropriating $20,000 from the FY 14 budget and placing it in the Adams Memorial fund. The $20,000 in the FY 14 budget was planned to address the structural repairs, and the Public Works Capital Reserve Fund has a balance of $1,351,199. Fowler said using those funds would have no impact on the tax rate.

Needed structural work includes removal of a tar and gravel section of the roof to reduce the load on structural members, installation of rigid insulation and a new rubber roof (there is currently no roof insulation, Fowler noted); installation of structural steel beams to support the roof over the stage; installation of LVL joists to reinforce the stage floor to support 100 pounds per square foot; and installation of LVL beams to reinforce the ceiling framing and roof framing.

“We would like to do it all at once,” Fowler said.

In the public comment portion of the hearing, resident Kelly Martin asked what the impact on the theater’s programs would be of not doing the repairs in August.

“Will ticket sales be affected by the closure of the balcony?” she asked, adding that “We hadn’t planned on doing it till 2015.”

Fowler said closing the balcony has reduced the capacity by 100 patrons. If the work is not done in August, that will make a full year without the balcony, he said.

“It’s a ‘nice to have,’ but I would rather put the money into another pumper truck,” Martin said, referring to a fatal fire earlier in the week.

Fowler said the total capacity of the auditorium is 375 people; without the balcony, it is 275.

Mary McCarthy, owner and director of Dance Progressions, said, “I use the Opera House twice a year. Closing the balcony, losing 100 seats, does affect us. It has impacted two shows already. If the balcony remains closed, I may be forced to look elsewhere.” And she can’t afford “elsewhere,” McCarthy said, pointing out that the Palace Theater in Manchester and Pinkerton’s Stockbridge Theatre are out of her price range.

Mark Berglund, an Opera House trustee, said many shows sell out, especially those involving children. “For Kids Coop productions, we’ve had to turn people away,” he said. Londonderry High School uses the Opera House for its drama productions, and the Majestic Theater of Manchester is a newer client. “They are going to present ‘Sweeney Todd’ in May, and it’s already sold out,” Berglund said.

Matt Cahoon, Arts Council member and director of the Stockbridge Theatre, referred to a term called “Gross Potential Income” or GPI. “When we sign an agreement with agents, we have to estimate a certain income,” he said. “If the balcony remains closed, that takes certain artists off the table.”

Cahoon pointed out that at a hypothetical $10 per person, if the theater is down 100 seats, that’s a $1,000 loss of revenue.

“We need the balcony more often than not,” member David Nelson said. “I am concerned that we’ll lose some of our base.” In addition, Nelson said, the group is working with several new or potential renters.

Nelson said the Arts Council pays the town a monthly rent of $1,000.

Councilor Al Dimmock observed that the town is still paying a bond on earlier repairs, and asked, “What part of the bond do you pay? What part of the town’s insurance and liability?” He said Fowler has asked for a snow plow in the 2015 budget, and said, “Which is more important?”

“We are advocating for the arts,” Nelson responded.

Councilor Brad Benson expressed concern at the way the dialogue was going. “It sounds like, ‘Us versus you,’” he said. He reminded Dimmock that the Chamber, Housing and Redevelopment and museum also lease space in the building.

“This is not about Dave, this is not about the Arts Council,” Benson said.

“We’re stopping Mike from spending money on something he needs,” Dimmock responded.

But Fowler said there is $1.5 million in capital reserves, and enough money to do Adams Memorial this year and still get the plow he requested for next year, along with a new lift for vehicle maintenance.

He also has a plan for snow removal, he said. Though the department is $180,000 to $200,000 over what was budgeted, he said he would look for money in this year’s budget and also tap the Winter Maintenance Fund.

Using the Capital Reserve money to fill the snow removal hole won’t work, he said. “The Capital Reserve money is just that, for capital reserve,” Fowler said.

Council member Neil Wetherbee asked about snow loads, and Fowler responded, “That’s good news/ bad news.” He explained that because of the lack of insulation, the snow isn’t staying on the roof, so his crews don’t have to shovel it. But, he added, snow load will be an issue when the new roof is on.

Councilor Tom Cardon said he was glad that the Arts Council is building programs. “It will have a positive effect on downtown,” he said, adding, “What we have is pretty cool.”

Councilor Phyllis Katsakiores asked if opening the balcony again would affect downtown parking.

Nelson responded, “If you are motivated to go to a show, you’ll find parking.” He said patrons of the Kids Coop shows will park where they can and don’t mind walking, but he added that it might be an issue for spontaneous show-goers.

Resident Lynn Perkins expressed concern about water damage to the structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. “I don’t want to let it sit another year,” Perkins said. “While we’re desperate for every tax dollar, I do have limits.”

Perkins suggested an increase in the user fees.

The Council voted on three motions:

• To establish the Adams Memorial Building Capital Reserve Fund;

• To make an FY 14 supplemental appropriation of $130,000 from the Public Works Capital Reserve Fund to the Adams Memorial Capital Reserve Fund; and

• To make a $20,000 budget transfer from the current Public Works budget to the Adams Memorial Capital Reserve Fund.

All three motions were approved 5-2. Cardon, Benson, Wetherbee, Katsakiores and Chairman Michael Fairbanks voted in favor of each motion, while Dimmock and Mark Osborne voted in the negative.