NORWAY, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage has agreed to issue a $400,000 bond on or before June 21, 2015, allowing Norway to proceed with its $1.1 million rehabilitation of the Opera House.
The letter, dated July 31 from LePage to state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin, authorizes the treasurer to issue the bond. The letter is not legally binding and does not require that a future governor follow LePage’s directive, but it was a ray of hope for town officials and others who have worked for five years to save the iconic 1894 Main Street building.
“I believe the project can be salvaged and move ahead,” Town Manager David Holt said. He recommended the town and Norway Opera House Corp. put the project to renovate the six, first-floor storefronts out to bid.
The news of the governor’s letter was delivered to selectmen at its meeting Thursday night by state Sen. David Hastings, R-Fryeburg, and state Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway, who along with help from Finance Commissioner Sawin Millett of Waterford urged the governor to release the funding.
The town will issue a bond anticipation note based on the governor’s written assurance to issue the $400,000 Communities for Maine’s Future grant by June 21, 2015.
In June, LePage stunned towns that had been awarded grants for revitalization projects when he delayed authorizing the $3.5 million in funds from the Communities for Maine’s Future bond until at least 2014. He called it fiscally prudent. The money was part of a $25 million community development bond approved by Maine voters in 2010.
The competitive grant awards provided funding for projects that restore and revitalize key buildings in the community, improve pedestrian access and safety, and projects that are catalysts for local jobs. The communities receiving awards were Bath, Belfast, Dover-Foxcroft, Eastport, Livermore Falls, Monmouth, Norway, Rockland, Skowhegan, Unity and Winthrop.
Holt said Norway already invested about $130,000 in architectural and engineering fees that would have been recovered through the Communities for Maine’s Future grant. That money was in addition to hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to save the building over the past five years, including a $200,000 donation by Selectman Bill Damon and his wife, Bea.
The news of the grant delay came just two days after the town transferred the Norway Opera House deed to the Norway Opera House Corp. and shortly before the $1.1 million renovation project was to go out to bid.
Holt said Norway will have to have faith that the bond money will be released by 2015.
“This is the best we’re going to get. I don’t know how we’re going to make it any better,” Holt said.
According to state law, if the bonds are not issued within five years of the date of ratification, they can not be issued.
Although several members of the Norway Opera House Corp. and others questioned whether the governor’s letter was good enough to continue spending money on the project, Holt said if the town does not take the chance it would lose substantial tax credits for the project, plus the money already spent on the building.
“We’re not in a good position. There is no panacea,” he said.
Hastings said despite the fact the governor froze the money initially, he believes LePage is a man who will do what he says.
“He’s always done what he says he’s going to do. He’s about as blunt as he can get,” he said.
Norway officials and residents worked to save the three-story brick edifice after its roof partially collapsed in the fall of 2007 and its unsafe condition prompted the town to take it by eminent domain.
In 2002, the building was declared by Maine Preservation as one of Maine’s most endangered historic buildings. Its upper floors, which once hosted town and cultural events, have been vacant for years. Two of the storefronts have been vacant since 2007; the others since before that.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Norway Opera House Corp. member Bruce Cook said of the project’s start.