Negaunee council discusses future of Vista Theater

NEGAUNEE — The Historic Vista Theater may serve in many capacities once it is rehabilitated, but it won’t be a casino.

The Negaunee City Council advised City Manager Nate Heffron and the city attorney that they should not spend time researching the subject.

Though no official vote was taken, each council member was given the opportunity to talk about what direction they felt the city should take to restore the historic building.

“I know the rebuilding and re-usage of the Vista Theater is obviously a concern to a lot of people,” Mayor David Kangas said. “It’s a historical building and people would like to see it being used to its utmost potential.”

He said parking was one of his main concerns, if the building were turned into a casino.

“There’s a lot of people around town that have concerns about parking. They say there’s not enough parking right now as it is in Negaunee,” Kangas said. “… I’m not saying never say never but I guess I’ll go on record saying I’m not a fan of that part of it.”

Councilor Toby Smith said he would like to see the Vista “come back as the Vista.”

“I also haven’t heard of other community members who are interested in seeing a casino downtown,” Smith said.

In June, the Michigan House of Representatives passed its 2023-24 budget, which included $3 million from the state’s general fund to help the city restore the building.

Additionally, through the State Land Bank Authority, the city of Negaunee was awarded a $435,424 competitive grant to put a roof on the theater’s auditorium. The roof fell in on Aug. 26, 2020 due to a build-up of rainwater caused by a faulty drain.

“I am grateful for that grant money and looking forward to it being back to the Vista, because I remember coming here when I used to live in Marquette a long time ago, just to go to the theater,” Councilor Dana LaLonde said at the meeting. “You wouldn’t be able to get a seat at the pit because it would be packed. It was a draw for businesses to have our theater, you know, and I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait for it to reopen. I know it’s going to take a little while.”

Councilor Craig Ilmonen said the city should monitor closely how it spends the grant money.

“I can tell you if I came into (possession of) $3.5 million I’d probably frivolously be throwing hundreds around like you wouldn’t believe, right? So, we have to watch how this money gets spent,” Ilmonen said. “I couldn’t be happier. I was one of the first to say that we need to restore this to its original luster. Well, what happens on the inside with $3 million?”

He suggested some of the money could be spent to solve the parking problem.

“We can formulate a plan for parking. We want people to come to town, we want people to come to our new community or downtown development, then we need to have a place for them to park.”

Ilmonen also said that for the city to get its return of investment back on the Vista, it would need to be operating every day of the year.

“If that’s a casino, well then by all means, I think that’s the return on investment we need to look for,” Ilmonen said.

Councilor Anthony Stagliano said he “does not feel comfortable” with a casino downtown. He said he would like the city to use Peninsula Arts Appreciation Council’s development plan created by theater expert Thomas Gerdom.

“I think PAAC had worked with the consultant previously, before the roof collapsed. There was a plan in place, a plan to make the Vista profitable, and to make the Vista more than just where we were having plays there for one week out of the year,” Stagliano said. “…I’d like to develop that (plan). That seems to make more sense to me.”

Councilor Matt Howard stood by his idea that the city should investigate making the building into a casino.

“I am not ashamed to say that I am the one who suggested that. I don’t want to see the Vista go on the outside,” Howard said. “I think it’s a historic building and I’d like to see it stay, but if it stays it has to be something that is self-supporting, and a theater will not be self-supporting.”

He said whether the Vista stays a theater or becomes something else, the parking issue needs to be addressed. His main concern about the building, which will be transferred to the city from PAAC for $1, is that its operations will put a strain on the city’s budget in the long term.

“No matter what goes in that Vista, if it’s not self-supporting, we’re going to continually be paying the lights, be paying the heat. 20 years from now it’s going to need a new roof,” Howard said. “How long are we going to pump life support into this building before we say the building has to support itself, along with all the employees that work there?”

During public comment, PAAC President Rusty Bowers said the plan drafted by Gerdom would have the Vista operational all year round. He said part of the plan was renovating the annex building to have a dance studio space for rehearsals.

“…You could rehearse the play and have movies and other events going on in the theater year-round, so that you could draw people downtown to help the economy. Because if you have a draw for downtown for movies, musical events, touring companies that come in — if it’s all planned out and scheduled out — you can have things running there every month so that you can actually make money in the theater,” Bowers said. “And if you’re going to do plays four or five times a year, if you’re rehearsing next door, you only need the theater for the two weeks for tech week and your show. So, there is a plan.”

The city council will discuss the property transfer again during its meeting on Oct. 12.

For more information on the Vista, visit facebook.com/paacvistatheater.


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