LACONIA — With millions of dollars in financing set to refurbish the Colonial Theatre, it will soon become necessary to determine what kind of musical groups or thespians might want to perform there.
Mayor Ed Engler said Tuesday that with all the trials, tribulations and delays in putting together the funding package, exact plans for running the 750-seat venue have not been set.
“There is a presumption that the city would subcontract with someone to actually manage the theater,” he said. “That has not been a top priority to date.”
On Monday night, the City Council gave unanimous final approval for $6.7 million in bonds to fund the downtown project. Early on, the city loaned $1.4 million to the Belknap Economic Development Council to buy the theater, so its overall financial commitment will be $8.1 million.
The financial closing for the $13.5 million project, which also relies on state, federal and private money, is expected on Sept. 30, followed by the start of construction.
Schools, libraries and community groups would likely have access to the theater at no charge, while attempts would be made to draw paying productions as well, Engler said.
“This isn’t Broadway, but we’ll have an extremely attractive auditorium that will hopefully attract rock ‘n’ roll, symphony orchestras, plays — both traveling shows and locally produced productions — music, concerts, you name it,” Engler said.
“Meadowbrook (Bank of NH Pavilion) has expressed interest in bringing in some acts in their off-season – the winter.
“It won’t happen overnight. It’s not like 300 events will be booked at that theater from day one. That’s unlikely to happen. It will have to build up.”
Louanne Lewit, executive director of the Claremont Opera House, which is similar in size to the Colonial Theatre, said among those who perform there are tribute acts, comedians and local productions.
“We’ve had Tusk, a Fleetwood Mac tribute band; Eaglemania, Ted Vigil, a John Denver tribute artist; Recycled Percussion, the comedian Bob Marley and he’s funnier now than ever,” she said.
Upcoming shows include Takin’ it to the Streets, a Doobie Brothers tribute band, and Moondance, a Van Morrison tribute.
Claremont’s city offices are on the ground floor of its opera house, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Refurbishment of the 1897 theater was done mainly with grant money, said John Bennett, who was instrumental in saving the building during the 1970s.
Bennett said Claremont has struggled with the loss of manufacturing over the years, but the opera house has helped its downtown attract restaurants and boost interest to the area.
“But we are not on the tourist main line,” he said. “That is a big advantage Laconia has.
“Because you’ve got a market, it will expand. You will have another venue to increase the marketability of Laconia. Live entertainment is on the rise. People like to go out. You can pull in various age groups.”
The Claremont Opera House does not have major debt, while the city of Laconia will pay $385,000 per year to service $6.7 million in debt over 25 years at 2.99 percent interest under a plan unveiled Monday.
City officials don’t expect the Colonial Theatre to pay for itself.
In the City Council’s public hearing, a man who identified himself as Davy Kontz asked about the value of the project.
“All the money you’re going to spend on it, will you be able to recuperate that money and make a profit on it?” he asked.
Engler responded with his own question.
“Let me ask you this, if we built a new library would we get our money back?” the mayor said. “It’s like an amenity. It’s something the city wants. And it’s very common in the United States for cities to have this as an amenity for its citizens.”
Local resident John Pelletier asked the mayor what the city would lose if it backed out.
Engler said the city’s $1.4 million loan to Belknap Economic Development Council to purchase the theater would be in jeopardy, because if the property were sold, that amount would not be recovered.
“I would like to know, if you can’t recoup that $1.4 million ever, why on Earth did you have a loan go to this economic council for them to purchase the building?” Pelletier asked.
“Because that was the price we had to pay to buy the property,” Engler responded. “And we overpaid for it, knowing we had to overpay for it. That’s a simple answer, but in the long-run, once it is redone, we believe it will be worth far more than that because of its value, because of the historic nature of the building.”
Patrick Wood, a local attorney, testified that the theater will have immediate value.
“We’ve had five of our kids go to Laconia High School,” he said. “They’ve all been involved one way or another in different events, many of them involved in plays. And those of you familiar with Laconia High School know how difficult it is to have a play in that particular auditorium.
“The opportunity just for the high school to have a facility like this will put Laconia at the top of all of the high schools in the state. There will not be a better facility. That alone from my perspective says this is worthwhile doing, but there are so many other organizations that will be able to use this facility as well.
“This is a great investment. It’s a lot of money but it’s worth it because it says something about us and our community and how we believe in our community and the future.”
Rep. Charlie St. Clair, D-Laconia, who owns the downtown Antique Center, told the council this a step forward for an area that lost historic structures to urban renewal years ago.
“I think for those of us who have been around for a long time, there are still some ghosts in this city for all the buildings the city let go,” he said. “I don’t think the city ever recovered from that. I have faith this is going to be a very good thing for the city.”