Opera House plans addition

Pictured is a digital rendering of the proposed expansion at the Fairmont Opera House.

FAIRMONT — An unexpected financial windfall has prompted the Fairmont Opera House board of directors to embark on a $10 million fundraising endeavor to upgrade and expand the facility.

Blake Potthoff, executive director of the Opera House, said expanding the building has been discussed for more than 20 years, but a series of events recently brought the project to the forefront.

When the Opera House’s south wall started showing signs of distress, the ISG engineering firm of Mankato was brought in for an evaluation.

“The plaster is falling away, and it’s exposing fire brick,” Potthoff said. “Fire brick is really soft. You can scratch your name with your fingernail. It’s something we would have to fix.”

Then the building directly south of the Opera House became available in May when its occupant, Ivy Blue, closed, the board was able to purchase the site.

The board also learned that funds will be coming from three sources. State Rep. Bob Gunther of Fairmont sponsored a grant of $250,000 from the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, which is part of the state’s Clean Water and Legacy Amendment Fund. The Erma Rosen Foundation gave a gift of $500,000, with $400,000 for the facility and $100,000 to be used in $5,000 increments annually over the next 20 years to sponsor a show in her name. And the Opera House has received notice that it was named as a beneficiary in a Fairmont resident’s will and is set to receive about $1 million from the estate.

“We’ve raised 20 percent of our goal, and it wasn’t even public yet,” Potthoff said.

Potthoff revealed the “Launch the Legacy” fundraising campaign at Saturday’s performance of “Rave On! — The Buddy Holly Experience,” which is part of the Fairmont Opera House’s 2017-18 subscription series. Digital renditions of the proposed upgrades and expansion are available on the website www.fairmontoperahouse.org, and a “rocket” to measure donations will be posted at the building.

“The Fairmont Opera House has had 117 years of community support, and its trajectory has changed, very quickly, from kind of static to straight up, so we went with the rocket,” Potthoff said. “You can’t launch a rocket off the sand. You need a firm foundation. Our foundation is well-established so now we’re set to lift off into the next level of performances, accessibility and safety.”

The existing historic building will undergo upgrades in lighting and restrooms, roof repairs and ramping. The addition will house offices, restrooms, meeting rooms for social events and receptions, and a gallery.

“The big things that we want to cover are safety, security and accessibility for our patrons, staff and artists,” Potthoff said. “There’s work we need to do in the current facility, but that’s really about safety and security. We’ll be changing some things with lights and sound to enhance the patron experience and the artist experience and for our volunteers and staff. We ask people to go up in an electric lift or to crawl up in the attic to change the lights. That’s not safe.”

The issues with the fire brick on the southern wall will be eliminated because it will be enclosed, eliminating its exposure to the elements. There will be an elevator, ramps, new hydraulic lifts, a new loading dock and a new shop and mechanical area to build sets in the basement. Each floor will have accessible bathrooms and a small kitchen area.

“Anybody — no matter what age or physical capabilities — will be able to get anywhere,” Potthoff said. “I believe that we’ll be the first theater in the state to have wheelchair seating in the balcony.”

He was quick to offer assurance that the integrity of the historic building will not be compromised.

“We’re not changing. We’re enhancing,” he said. “It’s still the Fairmont Opera House. We’ll still have the shows that people love. We’ll still have the same seats that people sit in every year.”

Potthoff doesn’t anticipate raising the remaining amount from community donations, although he did agree to do a back flip, his first ever, on stage if that should happen. Other sources of revenue including grants and benefit concerts will be pursued.

“We (board of directors) have to invest our time and efforts as well,” he said. “We don’t just expect people to throw cash at us. That’s not how it is.

“The important thing, too, is that 90 cents of every dollar goes to this structure, with 10 cents going to our endowment fund. As we increase our physical stability and longevity, we have to, have to, have to invest in our financial longevity, so with our $10 million campaign, we’ll be putting $1 million into the endowment fund.”

The goal is to have fundraising completed by Dec. 31, 2020.

Potthoff said one of the board members offered a great analogy about the project.

“He said that it’s like when you buy a two-bedroom house and you have six kids. You have two options. You can make it work, or you can grow and expand.

“It’s a risk, but it’s worth it,” he said. “Right now, we’re at that time where things just kind of fell in our lap. It’s the right time to do this. We didn’t anticipate getting any of this funding, but you just can’t ignore it when things like this happen.”