GARDINER — The backers of the plan to renovate the large theater at the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center can measure their accomplishments in a growing list of “never befores.”

Never before has Johnson Hall launched a capital campaign.

Never before has Johnson Hall had an endowment.

Never before has the theater had dedicated staff to support both fundraising and capital campaign activities.

Never before has the theater qualified for and secured a buyer for the historic tax credits that will be used to pay for some of the construction.

Never before has Johnson Hall been able to raise the kind of money that it’s raised to date to pay for the $4.8 million project.

All of these “never befores” are building blocks that board members have put in place deliberately as a foundation for the renovation project that’s expected to start next year and be completed in time for a 2019 opening.

Even as work is now underway to renovate and reopen the Colonial Theatre in Augusta, plans to expand Johnson Hall’s role in building a vibrant community in Gardiner, just 7 miles south of Maine’s capital city, are being unrolled.

The parallel paths of these projects inevitably invites comparison, but each is following a distinctly different path.

“Three years ago, shortly after Mike Miclon came on board as our executive director, the board of directors did an all-day retreat to work on our goals, and that’s when we set the target date for the opening in 2019,” Patrick Wright said. Wright wears several hats. He’s the executive director of Gardiner Main Street and the economic development coordinator for the city of Gardiner. But in this case, he’s a Johnson Hall board member and the chairman of its opera house renovation steering committee.

“We knew we were up against a big challenge, but we didn’t know how much our organization would have to mature in that time,” Wright said.

The “never befores” that the board has achieved are matched by the “must dos” that board members have accomplished.

“We needed to create a culture of philanthropy,” Wright said. “And we had to show we had a strong history of fundraising. We had to make sure every board member was highly committed both financially and the time they put into the work. That’s not something you do overnight. You literally have to build it.”

The reason for this deliberate approach is that board members say the effort is not about the building. This project is about the environment they can create to deliver the mission of Johnson in a bigger way — promoting, creating and inspiring artistic excellence through presenting world-class entertainment and professional performing arts education to drive cultural and economic growth for its community.

Hitting all these benchmarks also was part of a plan to bridge the credibility gap. Board members are aware that previous attempts to renovate the theater stalled for a variety of reasons, including external factors no one could control, such as the economic downturn in 2007, which effectively squelched fundraising attempts.

Now, with a commitment from Kennebec Savings Bank, which had donated $100,000, agreed to buy all the tax credits the project qualifies for and put together construction and pledge financing packages, the work continues. Last month, Jane’s Trust Foundation gave $75,000 in capital support for the renovation, the largest competitive grant received by the theater in 30 years.

Construction estimates and the financial model is being developed.

The capital campaign is in its quiet phase while board members work to build support for the project. Taking a general fundraising appeal public too early without showing leadership gifts can stall fundraising efforts, Wright said.

“People need to care about your project, and to do that, you need to build relationships,” he said. “We are introducing ourselves to as many people who like to hear our story as possible.”

As part of the strategy to build leadership gifts, Johnson Hall is seeking $150,000 from the city of Gardiner for a matching challenge. The Gardiner City Council was expected to hold a public hearing on the request at its Wednesday meeting, but it was canceled because of a snowstorm. The meeting has been rescheduled for Wednesday this week.

‘THE BEST DAY’

Johnson Hall, the oldest opera house in Maine, already is providing entertainment in its Studio Theatre with a regular schedule of live shows that frequently sell out. From June to September, Johnson Hall hosts free concerts on Gardiner’s waterfront. It operates Spark, a summer theater camp for children.

And some of the performers also take part in the artist-in-residency program in Gardiner schools.

Years ago, Karen Moody went to shows in the Studio Theatre, and she was unimpressed because the space was dark and the stage was low.

Returning years later as the principal of Laura E. Richards School was a completely different experience.

“There is no performing arts enrichment in any of our buildings,” she said. And many of her children live in apartments on the upper floors of buildings on Water Street but don’t get to take advantage of the cultural activities that take place in downtown Gardiner.

Last year, two groups of students walked down the hill to the theater to see magician Norman Ng.

“We had almost 100 percent attendance that day,” Moody said. “Usually, we have 10 to 15 kids absent. Most are from struggling families, so having them come to school was a big deal.”

Those struggling families reflect the effect of drug addiction across the state, she said. Some children have seen family members use drugs and overdose. Some family members have died as a result and some are in jail. Some of the children were invited on stage to take part in the show, and it left an impression.

“One of the little boys grabbed me by the leg and said that had been the best day of his whole life,” she said. “A second-grader came out of the library and told me he found a book on magic and he was going to read the book and show the class.”

One of the important benefits of having access to shows like these is that it serves as a stress reliever for both the staff and the students, because laughter releases endorphins, and that contributes to better coping skills, she said.

“What would the impact be if we can get these kids into Johnson Hall to see a world-class performer in their own community?” Wright said. Wearing his economic and community development hat, he said he hopes it’s keeping kids engaged in their community as they grow up and decide where they want to live.

BRINGING UP THE VALUE

One of the biggest threats to economic growth in Maine is not jobs; it’s people. The state’s low unemployment rate, coupled with its aging population, means that communities such as Gardiner have to work hard to attract and keep people to fill the jobs that already exist.

“As people are looking for affordable places to live and as workers get more mobile, cultural amenities are becoming more important,” he said.

The economic development aspect is an equation with many moving parts.

Beyond providing entertainment, board members see Johnson Hall as an asset that will add measurable economic impact in Gardiner and the region.

Downtowns are, per acre, the most highly valued areas in any community, Wright said. Because of their density of valuation, it’s easy to provide downtown neighborhoods with infrastructure and to create an environment where one success builds on another to deliver a greater impact.

“Once Johnson Hall is complete, it will ripple through the value of the rest of the buildings in downtown Gardiner, but really through the rest of the community, because they will be more desirable,” he said. “That will increase market prices, and when we revalue, it will shift the tax burden so the commercial buildings bear more of their share of taxes.”

Added to that is the downtown Gardiner TIF. The Tax Increment Financing deal shelters added value for a fixed period so that state aid to the community is not reduced because of additional value.

At some point, Wright said, the TIF will expire and all that sheltered value will be available to the city’s general fund.

Augusta shares many of Gardiner’s economic development concerns, and the mechanism at work in Gardiner is likely to be played out in Augusta.

While it’s tempting to see the Colonial Theatre and Johnson Hall projects as being in competition with each other, Andrew MacLean, president of the Johnson Hall board of directors and a former Gardiner mayor, said he doesn’t think that’s the case.

“I might make an analogy,” he said. “Portland is known for a wide variety of restaurants, and people don’t want to go to the same place every night. I am sure both organizations are concerned about fundraising at the same time. All we can do is focus on our own project.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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