The marquee at the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft is pictured in 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

A Dover-Foxcroft theater has received a federal grant four months after Piscataquis County commissioners almost torpedoed its application over the political views of theater leadership.

The Piscataquis County commissioners voted 2-1 in March to deny providing the Center Theatre a letter of community support for a grant the theater sought from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to repair and stabilize columns that hold the building above the banks of the Piscataquis River.

The commissioners’ vote came after the theater’s executive director, Patrick Myers, and board chair, Cynthia Freeman Cyr, vocally opposed a January resolution from the commissioners opposing state coronavirus restrictions that called COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus” and said inaccurately that face masks cause respiratory illness.

The $28,000 grant award is positive news for a theater that has found itself in the middle of a heated political battle over national hot-button issues in Maine’s least populous county since the beginning of the year.

Amid the public outcry in the spring, an unknown person or group sent anonymous text messages mentioning the theater’s application to numbers across Piscataquis County. The mass text messages purported to come from a local activist group that had formed to oppose the commissioners’ January resolution, but that group, PROACT, did not fund the mass text campaign.

The Center Theatre’s auditorium and lobby are supported over the banks of the Piscataquis River by a series of columns. The theater has received a federal grant to pay for the columns’ repair. Credit: BDN file

Letters from local bodies are required for many federal grants to show that the applicant has support within the community. Such letters are nearly always a formality. The USDA allowed the theater to apply for the grant without a letter from county commissioners after determining that the community supported the theater, which is a cultural center for the rural county.

The columns whose repair the grant will fund were built in 1940, and have sustained 80-plus years of spring floods and freezing, Myers said. He hopes work on the columns will be completed by winter, but said it could take until 2022.

Strong public support for the theater after the commissioners refused to provide a letter helped it receive the grant, Myers said. Theater management had also worked with the USDA on past projects.

“The outpouring from the community, as well as letters of support from town, state and federal officials, made it clear to the USDA that the Center Theatre was a valuable community asset that should be eligible for funding,” Myers said.

More than 100 people sent messages in support of the theater to Piscataquis County Manager Michael Williams before the commissioners’ vote on March 23 declining to issue the letter of support for the theater.

Only one message came in opposition.