Skowhegan residents gather at the Skowhegan Opera House in October 2018 for a town meeting. Town officials are trying to determine the next chapter of the opera house as the cost to renovate the venue has soared. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

SKOWHEGAN — Up until 2009 the Skowhegan Opera House often saw its 840 seats filled for high-profile acts like Leon Russell, Ani DiFranco, Cowboy Junkies, Keller Williams and Johnny Winter.

But the venue’s sheen has dimmed over the years and it’s now more known for hosting the annual Town Meeting or for occasional plays or dance recitals.

The opera house was built in 1919 and located on the second floor of the Skowhegan Municipal Building. Its equipment is tired, there’s only one bathroom on the entire floor for performers and hundreds of audience members to share, and the space is out of compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Town officials met Tuesday for a workshop on the future of the opera house, but they face a daunting realization — the cost to renovate the space has skyrocketed in recent years. The venue’s manager, Cara Mason, says that she and a five-person committee continue to press for renovations that could revitalize the space, bring it up to code and repair the outdated equipment. They face, however, an estimated rehab cost of $3 million in 2019 that has swelled to more than double that amount today.

“What we would really love to see is that the opera house is fully functional and we could have shows here, like we did in 2009, when there were constant shows here,” Mason said Thursday.

Mason and her team are in a bind. Because the opera house is located within the municipal building, it’s ineligible for grant money, Jeff Hewett, the town’s director of economic and community development, said Tuesday. To complete the project the town will either have to fundraise the required sum or have taxpayers foot the bill, Hewett said.


Selectman Steve Govoni, who was awarded a bid in 2017 to take on the opera house project with Skowhegan civil engineering firm Wentworth Partners & Associates, said Tuesday that the project could cost up to $8 million or $9 million to complete today.

Mason said Thursday that Govoni’s estimate is unofficial and may be inflated, but did say that some initial upgrades to the space including a new lighting system, rigging and some structural work came in at a total of $882,000 this summer.

“These numbers are much, much, much higher than what our projected costs were for,” Mason said. “This was just a little tiny piece of this project that we were looking to do … it just snowballs when you have an old building like this.”

Mason asked selectmen who attended Tuesday’s workshop to consider adding an item to the town warrant that would dedicate $100,000 to $250,000 each year to an opera house reserve account for renovations.

The reserve account has $106,000 in it now, as selectmen dedicated their budget surplus to the project for fiscal year 2023, Select Board Chairman Todd Smith said Tuesday. Mason said the project also has another $7,700 in a special revenue account.

“We’re faced with, as a town, or community, how do we want to proceed? Is the opera house something that we believe in enough to continue to invest more money, to make this be what we want it to be?” Smith asked.


Taking into account Govoni’s estimate of $8 million, Smith said that if the board did dedicate $100,000 a year to the project, it would take decades to realize the committee’s vision.

“Everyone in this room is dead before this thing ever happens,” Smith said. “We’re looking at 80 years.”

To avoid burdening taxpayers with the project, town officials considered the idea of following Waterville’s lead by sectioning off the opera house from the municipal building and operating it as a separate entity: a nonprofit.

That would access grant funding for the project, Smith said, but would cost an exorbitant amount to execute. Separate entrances and exits would be needed for the venue, for one thing, he said.

Selectmen asked Tuesday that the opera house committee figure out a master plan with updated costs for renovations, and decide if the town should pursue the nonprofit option.

Mason said Thursday that the committee previously discussed another entity taking over the opera house and its operations, and said that discussion will continue at the committee’s next meeting scheduled for Sept. 19.

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