LACONIA — The curtain at the historic Colonial Theatre will finally rise again.
After a Monday night hearing, the city council voted unanimously to authorize $6.7 million in borrowing to help fund the repair and restoration of the century-old building that will blend a civic auditorium with upscale apartments and three storefronts.
The council’s finance committee later met in executive session before voting to approve signing a 25-year note at 2.95% with Bank of New Hampshire, resulting in an annualized debt service of $383,000 for the life of the bond.
Plans call for the Main Street building to be renovated into a 750-seat community auditorium. Rusty McLear who led the development of the Mills Falls Marketplace and three inns in Meredith, has pledged to turn the second and third floors of the building into high-end apartments or condominiums.
The redevelopment of the vaudeville theater, which was built by Benjamin Piscopo in 1913 and opened in 1914, is intended to help spark economic development in the core of the city’s downtown.
During the public hearing, State Rep. Charlie St. Clair, who owns the Laconia Antique Center on Main Street, said the mayor and council should be commended for taking a step forward for the city.
“There are a lot of ghosts left in this city from all the buildings that we have lost,” St. Clair said, an apparent reference to Laconia’s $7.1 million urban renewal project that took place from 1962 to 1975 and resulted in many of the oldest buildings between Bank Square and South Main Street being razed to make way for a pedestrian mall that was originally intended to be covered with a roof. Vehicles were routed around the core of the downtown on two loops — one northbound, one southbound.
Funding for the roof never materialized, and after two decades as a pedestrian mall, Main Street was reopened to vehicle traffic and limited parking in 1995, but the downtown but has failed to recover its former commercial energy.
“We all need to bite the bullet and go forward with it. I have faith this is going to be a very good thing for the city,” St. Clair said.
Earlier, John Pelletier, who lives on Main Street, said he didn’t see the project benefiting the city.
“If we got out of it, we’d save money,” he asserted.
Mayor Ed Engler recounted the city in effect holds a $1.4 million mortgage on the building for providing the capital allowing the Belknap County Economic Development Council to buy the property. With the $6.7 million in proposed borrowing, the city’s total investment in the project would be $8.1 million.
For that investment, Engler said, the city would be getting a state-of-the-art auditorium with the added benefit of historic architectural features, an amenity it now lacks. The building, which would revert to city ownership five years after completion, he said, would be worth substantially more than Laconia’s investment.
Local attorney Patrick Wood recounted that his five children all graduated from Laconia High School and that several were involved in theater. Wood said the school’s auditorium is not well suited to staging a play.
“To have a facility like this will put Laconia at the top of the state, and so many other organizations will be able to use it. It’s a great investment, a lot of money, but it says something about us and the future of the city,” Wood said.
Bonnette, Page & Stone, the general contractor for the project, is scheduled to rebid the project Sept. 1. Two and a half years have elapsed since initial bids for the work were solicited.
Engler told the council that BPS has contacted the primary subcontractors and that the feedback received was that costs won’t exceed the budget.
Based on original bids, plus 10% for inflation, construction including equipment is now estimated at $10,122,103. When soft costs are factored in, the total project cost is expected to be $11.1 million, which includes a $500,000 contingency.
Private donations and pledges have raised $1.5 million. Other major components of the funding stack include a $500,000 grant from the Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, $1.8 million in history preservation tax credits, $470,000 in a Community Development Block Grant, and $200,000 from the Community Development Investment Program (New Hampshire tax credits).