A plan to renovate a 400-seat theater in the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner is getting a substantial boost from a local bank that has pledged to help with project financing in a bid to help the city’s downtown.

“I believe in this project,” Andrew Silsby, president of Kennebec Savings Bank, said Thursday. “I believe we’re at a tipping point in linking the arts with economic vitality in that part of the county.”

That belief translates into Kennebec Savings Bank providing a multifaceted package of support for the project. The bank is committing to purchase all the historic tax credits the project has qualified for, and it has put together both construction financing and pledge financing packages and will donate $100,000 to the project’s fundraising campaign.

“We have a major investment in that community, and it has been very welcoming to us,” Silsby said. “It’s important to tell that area that we believe in the work that’s being done. Also, we understand our influence at times can help be a tipping point.”

For members of the Johnson Hall board, the bank’s commitment is a sign of faith in the project and the board’s ability to complete the renovation of the 400-seat theater.

“Aside from the practical path that this provides us to make the project real and viable, having a partner like the bank legitimizes the campaign in a way it was not before, and they are a phenomenal partner with ties into the community as deep as they come,” said Patrick Wright, chairman of the opera house renovation steering committee.


“For me, personally, this is huge,” said Mike Miclon, executive artistic director of Johnson Hall. “It’s the whole reason I took this job.”

The bank’s commitment is one of the most significant pieces of the puzzle.

“We need this to make people go: ‘Oh, this is going to happen.’ People don’t want to throw their money at a project unless it’s going to be a success,” he said.

Silsby made the announcement Thursday to a gathering of about 50 people at the bank’s headquarters in Augusta, and it marks the beginning of the fundraising campaign for the $4.3 million construction project that’s slated to be complete in 2019.

Miclon acknowledged that Johnson Hall has been burdened with a scenario of crying wolf with fundraising.

“We got close to this a couple of times,” he said. “We never said we were going to do a capital campaign, and we didn’t do it. And now this is the great part: There’s no way we’re not doing it.”


Part of Miclon’s challenge has been to show that enough demand for entertainment exists to fill the large theater. Since he started in 2012, he regularly has increased the number of shows that are hosted in the center’s small, ground-floor theater. Ticket sales have kept pace. In 2011-12 season, which was launched before he was hired, nine shows drew 450 people. During the 2014-15 season, 42 shows were scheduled that drew 3,010 people. Miclon estimates that more than 3,000 people attended Johnson Hall’s free concerts at Gardiner’s Waterfront Park over the summer.

In this upcoming season that kicks off this month, Johnson Hall is adding movies to the 37 planned performances, bringing the number of events there to more than 70.

“That’s been the strategy, to show why we need the update,” he said. “We can’t get any more people in the space we have for performances.”

Johnson Hall also has a schedule of children’s programs, which include the Spark theater camp and the artist in the schools program, which connects performers with local schools.

“We’re starting to see businesses stay open later” in connection with the events at Johnson Hall, Miclon said. “When we’re running the 400-seat theater, a lot of businesses will want to come in and be open, like restaurants and possibly a hotel.”

The hurdles the project faces are significant, and Silsby said bank officials have spent a lot of time crafting a package that would cross those hurdles.


“You have to pay enough taxes to get the tax benefit of the tax credits,” Silsby said. While as a nonprofit, Johnson Hall doesn’t pay taxes, the bank does. “There isn’t a huge pool of people who can buy those tax credits in that (financial) neighborhood.”

To get the tax credits, Silsby said, the building first has to be renovated. By committing to a construction loan package, the bank is underwriting the construction costs and will be repaid by the sale of the tax credits.

The bank also has experience in receiving financing pledges, and that’s a move that allows the project to get underway sooner. The bank will make the loan on the pledged contributions, and as those pledges come it, the loan is paid off.

“We recognize that Johnson Hall needs to continue to do the hard groundwork to share our story and let people know what we’re doing and what our plans are,” Wright said. “We will be launching our public campaign and entering a quiet phase where we build our leadership team.”

That will include a series of events through the region such as Thursday’s event hosted by Kennebec Savings Bank.

Silsby said it’s not hard to see the potential of Johnson Hall, despite the building’s unassuming appearance from Water Street.


“We are all in on this,” Silsby said.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632


Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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