January 10, 2008
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — During the mid-1990s a group of area drama enthusiasts and community builders came up with the ambitious notion of transforming the former Middlebury town hall on Merchants Row into a performing arts center.
Supporters were long on enthusiasm, but short on funds. Early on, the effort was somewhat reminiscent of the plot line of a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show” flick.
A decade later, however, their energy has paid off — with interest. Members of Town Hall Theater Inc. confirmed on Monday they had met their $5 million goal to complete interior renovations and open the facility to performances and other functions by this summer.
“It is great news; we are all ecstatic,” said THT board Chairwoman Gail Freidin. “I always thought we would make it to opening the building, but there were times I wondered how long it would take.”
Theater boosters knew last July that the $5 million goal was within their grasp, after some anonymous donors issued a $500,000 matching grant challenge. The THT board pulled out all the stops and matched the $500,000 — with $18,000 to spare — when time expired on the offer on New Year’s Eve.
Boosters received additional good news in October when Middlebury College announced it would contribute $1 million to THT over the next 20 years in return for the use of space and services in the facility.
“We are absolutely good to go,” said THT Executive Director Douglas Anderson. “It’s thrilling. The capital campaign committee worked very, very hard. Everybody rose to the occasion; no one was going to give up until that challenge was matched. It just worked out brilliantly.”
In all, more than 1,000 contributors gave gifts ranging from a few dollars to $500,000 to the THT effort over the course of 10 years. Anderson noted donors gave a whopping $1.6 million in 2007.
Supporters will now turn their attention to the major construction work that will take place inside the historic building. Work will include refinishing floors, sheet-rocking, insulating and sound proofing, installing seats that can be automatically raised and lowered, and building an addition that will house administrative and storage space as well as heating, ventilation, air conditioning and sprinkler systems.
“We are basically constructing a new building inside an old building,” Anderson said, in describing the extent of the work to be done.
With the project budget set and construction work under way, THT leaders will need to dramatically shift focus for the first time in 10 years.
“We’ve spent the last 10 years essentially as fund-raisers,” Anderson said. “Now we have to make a 180-degree turn and run a fine arts center, which is a whole different set of skills and a whole different set of challenges.
“This isn’t the end of something; this is the beginning of something,” he added.
Anderson said the organization will now turn its attention to such issues as how it will book events; how THT will promote itself; and what kind of fee schedule it will adopt.
While THT officials are pleased to have met the $5 million project goal, they know they have not solicited their final dollar. Anderson said plans call for an endowment fund to generate money for building maintenance and repairs. The facility will also need occasional infusions of stage equipment to keep shows vibrant.
“The capital campaign is over,” Anderson said. “We will still be fund-raising for the rest of our lives, as does any nonprofit organization, to make the place as wonderful as we can make it.”
Once open, the Town Hall Theater’s uses will go far beyond plays, Anderson noted. The facility will be hired out for private functions, including wedding receptions and conventions.
“We are going to market it very aggressively,” Anderson said.
Bruce Baker, co-chair of the THT’s capital fund-raising committee, is looking forward to seeing the facility in use.
“The beauty of it is we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Baker said. “When we have something to do every weekend in this town, that’s where the real payoff is going to be.”