The Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center at 280 Water St. in downtown Gardiner, photographed in July 2021. As inflation continues to drive up construction costs, Johnson Hall officials are seeking an additional $150,000 from Gardiner officials for the renovation of the historic opera house. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

GARDINER — Facing spiraling costs driven by inflation, officials at the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center are revising fundraising targets and aiming to raise more money.

As part of that push and with the cost of the project now approaching $8 million, they are asking Gardiner city officials to double the city’s $150,000 gift that has already been committed.

Gardiner officials are expected to hold a public hearing Wednesday on that request to hear comments from the public.

Michael Miclon, Johnson Hall’s executive artistic director, and Logan Johnston, co-chairman of its capital campaign, brought their request for the funds to be taken from revenue from the city’s Downtown Tax Increment Financing District to city officials during the May 4 meeting, along with several supporters who spoke out in favor of increasing the gift.

“The way that I’d like to approach you today is to share with you that I am back involved in Gardiner,” Patrick Wright said.

Wright, the former Gardiner Main Street director and economic coordinator for the city and former Johnson Hall board member, said he and his wife formed a real estate holding corporation and have bought the building directly across from Johnson Hall. They plan to invest further in that building and consider other opportunities in Gardiner.

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“One of the things that weighed into our consideration is the incredible investment that all the partners around the table have made in that awesome project,” Wright said. “I can speak for myself, but understand that the many others who have their eyes on this community and I think will look for your leadership and commitment to help get this project across the finish line very favorably.”

Cameron Fisher, who recently moved to Gardiner, said the revival of Johnson Hall contributed to her decision, as did the city’s historic downtown.

“Having arts at the center of a community really brings people together,” Fisher said.

Plans to renovate the state’s oldest opera house have been in the works for a number years. Central to the plans is reopening the 400-seat theater on the building’s top floor. That will drive other changes at the building, including adding an elevator and green rooms for visiting acts, and a lobby, concession area and full-service box office.

The Studio Theater, with a capacity of about 120, has hosted Johnson Hall’s regular season of performances and is also scheduled for an upgrade.

When the public phase of fundraising was announced in 2016, the cost was estimated at $4.3 million. By November 2021, that cost was estimated at $5.5 million, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, fundraising was on track to meet that amount, thanks to several large challenge gifts and federal grants. But as donations reached $5.5 million, the target moved to $6.8 million.

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Miclon said having raised about $6.7 million, the target has now moved closer to $8 million.

Months before the scheduled start of construction in April, it was clear inflation, driven by the global coronavirus pandemic, would affect the project’s final price tag, but not by how much.

At the end of 2021, Ganneston Construction Corp. of Augusta, Johnson Hall’s construction manager, noted the bids were being submitted with disclaimers imposing a time limit because of price volatility.

Since then, inflation in the United States has reached levels not seen in four decades, affecting everything from the price of fuel and groceries to construction and manufacturing costs.

The Associated General Contractors of America Inc., based in Arlington, Virginia, and the leading association for the construction industry, has noted that some prices related to nonresidential construction increased about 20% between June 2020 and June 2021.

Those increases, according to AGC’s 2022 Construction Inflation Alert report, include the prices of lumber, steel, drywall, transportation, fuel and tires.

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Gardiner officials have committed to giving $150,000 from undesignated funds to Johnson Hall for the renovation project.

As a nonprofit organization, Johnson Hall does not pay property tax. As part of its financing package, however, the theater must be owned by a for-profit entity for period of time, and for that five-year period, the improved building will generate property tax.

Johnson Hall, which routinely draws people from across the state and region to its performance season, receives $25,000 annually from the city of Gardiner to support its operations. Those funds come from revenue generated in the city’s Downtown TIF District.

State Rep. Thom Harnett, Gardiner’s former mayor, was not able to attend the May 4 meeting, but was one of about a half-dozen people to send a note to the City Council.

Harnett acknowledged the responsibility Gardiner officials have in making decisions about managing the city’s resources.

“I believe that our decision to invest in this project in March of 2017 was the right thing to do,” Harnett wrote, “and I believe that making the decision to support this additional investment to bring this bold community economic development project to completion is still the right thing to do today.”

Gardiner officials have also agreed to support another significant project now underway. The City Council agreed to donate $500,000 to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Kennebec Valley, which is building a $10 million facility to replace the decades-old Pray Street School, which has housed the club for about two decades. It is expected to be completed later this year.

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