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THE VISTA’S FUTURE: Options considered at Negaunee City Council meeting

Paul Olson creates chalk art in front of the Historic Vista Theater in Negaunee in late August. The next steps for the Historic Vista Theater remain to be seen after a clogged drain caused the roof of the building to collapse on Aug. 26. (Journal file photo)

NEGAUNEE — The next steps for the Historic Vista Theater remain to be seen after a clogged drain caused the roof of the building to collapse on Aug. 26.

Options and potential plans for the future of the structure were discussed at Thursday night’s Negaunee City Council meeting, with the bulk of the conversation centered around the feasibility of preparing the theater for winter, who’s responsible for footing the bill and potential third-party investors.

A GoFundMe campaign for the theater kicked off Sept. 5 and has raised over $12,000 to date. However, the Peninsula Arts Appreciation Council still needs to secure an estimated $100,000 to clear debris, shore up the theater walls and protect the building from the elements, all before the snow flies.

Negaunee City Manager Nate Heffron also announced at the council meeting that he’ll be stepping down from his position as PAAC board president in order to avoid a conflict of interest between his city and theater responsibilities. Moving forward, Heffron said he wants to focus on the health, welfare and safety of the public and businesses surrounding the Vista.

Richard Uren of Northern Design Works conducted a preliminary study of the building, which was deemed stable, and offered his thoughts on how to brace the building for the Upper Peninsula’s long winter.

“The biggest concern(s) with the winter are going to be the 30-foot high brick walls that are right now unsupported because the roof is gone,” he said. “The concern will depend on those (walls) and the potential for snow and ice to get into the other, undamaged parts of the building.

“My recommendation would be, if at all possible, to put some shoring on those brick walls. And put some kind of temporary enclosures — wood framing and tarps or something else — to enclose the undamaged parts of the building to keep the snow out of it. That’s the biggest concern I see with (the building) deteriorating further.”

Two other historic buildings in downtown Negaunee were referenced as examples similar to the Vista. The Sundberg building was demolished in November 2016 while the Kirkwood building was torn down last September. Both structures suffered partial roof collapses and were deemed unsafe, leading to the demolition of both structures.

The city was responsible for demolition costs in both of those cases, and council members debated the issue of who pays for what regarding the Vista.

Historic theater expert Thomas Gerdom, who served as a consultant for the Vista Theater on past renovations, was also present at the virtual meeting which was held via Zoom. Gerdom said the Sundberg and Kirkwood buildings can’t be looked at as similar scenarios.

“Those are very different situations,” he said. “You have private owners and for-profit owners, and there was obviously serious deterioration that was not addressed.”

PAAC is a nonprofit organization which has owned and operated the theater since 1973. PAAC is only the second owner of the theater building in its 94-year history.

“This is a community nonprofit that owns and operates the building,” Gerdom added. “They’ve put $100,000 into it over the last year, year and a half. The theater has had just two owners through its entire life in the community.

“The PAAC board is obviously concerned. I’m not sure what Richard (Uren) thinks of this, but I think that once debris is removed, walls are shored (up) and we can close in the building, we’re in good shape for the winter. The floor in the auditorium is concrete and there’s no basement underneath, so any water or snow accumulation isn’t a problem.

“There is an issue we have to address. And that’s because the floor runs down toward the front of the stage, the water sort of pools and then spills into the orchestra pit, which spills underneath the stage.”

Gerdom said he’s unsure if much else could be done before spring due to the lack of materials and the demand for construction due to COVID-19.

“The materials aren’t around, the workers aren’t around,” he said. “All of the roofers and other construction people lost almost two months last spring with the COVID restrictions. Everybody is behind and playing catch up, so I’m not sure it’s an option to consider getting the roof on there (before winter). It’s probably going to be tough to even get the shoring and temporary walls put up, but they’re moving on this as fast as they can.”

Heffron also commented that a third-party investor has expressed interest purchasing the theater.

“We have a third party who is interested but we shouldn’t be trying to step on their toes right now,” he said. “We do know that the PAAC board will be having a membership meeting on Monday to discuss this issue further and hopefully allow for the board to be able to negotiate with that third party and bring back an acceptable agreement to the membership for them to vote on it.

“The party involved has shown strong interest. That doesn’t mean it’s a cemented deal, but they have indicated to me that they’re interested and I’ll leave it at that. Getting ahead of the game right now and doing anything officially or spending money at this point is not viable, especially if there’s a third party who’s interested.”

The PAAC board released a statement Friday saying it has not yet communicated with the third-party investor, but also expressed appreciation to the council for their willingness to discuss the matter at the meeting.

“The PAAC Advisory Board is grateful that the Negaunee City Council was willing to discuss the Vista Theater during its meeting Thursday,” the statement reads. “We do want to make clear that, while we are aware of the interest of a third-party purchaser for the property, we have not yet received communication directly from that company. Representatives for the investor will not be involved in our membership meeting on Monday. That meeting is to inform them of our situation at present and ask them for their support in our efforts to look to the future of the organization and the Vista Theater itself.

“Public safety continues to be our primary concern. There is still a dire need to make the building safe by clearing the debris inside the building and shoring up the walls before winter. These efforts will also protect the building for the possible installation of a roof in the spring. Our organization is responsible for making that happen. We will continue our GoFundMe efforts as well as other avenues of fundraising. Our work with local architects and contractors will also continue so we can get that accomplished. While we are willing to consider an offer for our properties with a third party, negotiations would take precious time, and any purchase agreement would have to be approved by a majority of our membership.

“We have likely 4-6 weeks until weather could be upon us, so time is running short to prepare. We want to thank everyone who has donated so far, and hope to give more positive news in the coming days.”

For updates on the Vista Theater roof situation and the link to the GoFundMe campaign, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ paacvistatheater, www.vistatheater.org or https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/help-us-save-the-vista-theater/peninsula-arts-appreciation-council.

Ryan Spitza can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. His email address is rspitza@miningjournal.net.

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