GARDINER — As part of a plan to raise funds to pay for the renovation of Johnson Hall’s large theater, members of its board have asked Gardiner city officials to make a leadership gift to support the project.

The request for $150,000 is intended to be a challenge gift that will draw other donations to support the $4.5 million project that supporters say will give Gardiner an economic and cultural boost.

While a number of city residents and business owners support the project and the request for city funds, several spoke out against the move at a public hearing during last Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

Andrew MacLean, a former Gardiner mayor and president of the Johnson Hall board of directors, said the renovation of the historic opera house will be an economic development game-changer for the city. He was joined by Logan Johnston, co-chairman of the theater’s capital campaign committee, and Carolyn Kimberlin, vice president of the Johnson Hall board.

During the last 20 years, Johnson Hall has invested nearly $460,000 into the building, MacLean said, including renovating the ground floor and building the 117-seat Studio Theater, maintaining the building and preparing for the renovation.

The theater has dramatically increased its programming, including the number of shows it puts on in the Studio Theater, the Johnson and Riverfront parks, in the Gardiner schools and five weeks of summer camp, he said.

To date, the capital campaign that now is in its quiet phase has tallied cash, pledges and a commitment to buy historic tax credits that total more than $2 million from companies, board members, individuals and families.

“The renovation of the upper floors of Johnson Hall represents a quantum leap for Johnson Hall and what it offers to the city,” he said. Currently it draws 3,000 people every year. When the upper theater is completed, MacLean said, Johnson Hall is expected to draw 15,000 people annually.

“That quantum leap will absolutely be a game-changer for the city’s economic development,” he said. “It’s for these reasons we respectfully ask the City Council to designate $150,000 of current fund balance as an investment in the $4.49 million historic renovation of the opera house theater as a leadership gift to be paid upon signing the construction agreement.”

Johnston outlined the economic impact of the theater, not only in direct spending but as an asset for businesses recruiting workers who are looking for a good quality of life and quality of place that includes entertainment options offered by the theater.

Scott Morelli, Gardiner’s city manager, recapped the city’s interest in the project in a brief presentation. He noted that supporting Johnson Hall has been a priority of the City Council as long as he has worked for the city in the form of a $25,000 annual contribution. In addition, he said, support for the historic opera house has been written into two comprehensive plans, including the most recent one, and into a 2009 amendment to the Downtown TIF program statement.

Under the tax credit financing that the theater has secured, he said, a for-profit entity will be created and will own the theater for five years after the opera house theater renovation is completed, and it will be subject to property taxation during that time.

Making the gift from undesignated fund balance would not shrink the fund beyond what the city’s auditors recommend, he said.

Weighing in in favor of the gift, business owners John Callanan at the Craft Beer Cellar, Dr. Paula Strait at Simple Medicine and Michael Giberson said they see opportunity in the renovated theater.

“I want my tax dollars to go to this,” Giberson, who is co-owner of the A1 Diner said, “and I pay taxes at home and my business.”

Maureen Blanchard, who questioned and objected to city contributions to non-profits including Johnson Hall when she was a city councilor, argued against the gift.

“What we have now is a nonprofit that has requested $150,000 in addition to the $25,000 a year the city pays it annually to stay afloat, and we cannot lower taxes,” Blanchard said.

Matthew Marshall expressed his reservations on the request. “I support the arts, and I hope in my heart of hearts that (Johnson Hall) is very successful, but I don’t think taxpayers should be on the hook for $150,000,” he said. If the property tax the theater would generate while it’s owned by a for-profit entity would repay the amount of the gift, he would support the move.

But other residents joined Giberson in saying they support making the gift with their tax dollars.

“Johnson Hall is one of my favorite places in Gardiner,” Robert Abbey said. The theater, which has suffered a number of fires, is still standing. It meant something to the people who sat in the seats of the opera house in 1888, and it means something to people now, Abbey said.

Stacey Morrison said she has choices about where she goes when she spends money, and she would spend money at an improved Johnson Hall.

“I have reviewed the business plan and it’s viable. Kennebec Savings Bank made a commitment to the project and banks don’t invest in non-viable businesses,” she said.

The bank has committed to buy all of the tax credits, has donated $100,000 and has agreed to provide construction- and pledge-financing packages.

“As a business owner and a resident, I will be investing in Johnson Hall,” she said.

In considering whether to move the request to a second read, District 4 City Councilor Philip Hart injected a note of caution.

“This council today is very fortunate that the city is in the financial position it’s in. When I started, the city didn’t have enough money to meet the payroll. Taxpayers had to bear the burden of borrowing money to pay bills,” Hart said.

He said he’d like to see an analysis of what kind of property tax the theater might generate. While city taxpayers have supported other economic development initiatives, he’s concerned about the city’s elderly residents who struggle to pay their property taxes.

Hart was the only councilor to vote against sending the request to a second read.

That second read will take place Wednesday, when the City Council next meets. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers at 6 Church St.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellK

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