It Makes a Village – Success in Downtown Norway

On the 10 year anniversary of the Norway Opera House’s designation as a Most Endangered Property, its revitalization will be celebrated by a ribbon cutting Friday, March 1. Much more than a local event, its story is heartwarming and inspiring to other towns who strive to remain or become “communities”.  The Norway Opera House has broad significance and state-wide relevance as a prime example of how policy initiatives can “hit the pavement” with success.

Norway Opera House ClockTowerLocated in Norway’s historic center of socioeconomic interaction, the Norway Opera House was the community’s symbol of pride, prosperity and community activity for many years, featuring famous headliners and healthy first-floor retail establishments that activated Main Street. Built immediately after a fire in 1894 which devastated Norway’s downtown, this building was a symbol of reconstruction and the largest building on Main Street. The Opera House’s landmark clock tower still dominates the Main Street skyline and can be seen from 360 degrees and for considerable distances.

The Norway Opera House joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 as a contributing property to the Norway Historic District. Many decades of neglect, combined with exposure to the elements, caused the building to suffer greatly. In 2003 it was listed by Maine Preservation as a Most Endangered Property. Serious structural problems and life safety concerns caused its closure and subsequent vacancy. In an unusual and bold commitment to the vitality of its downtown, the Town acquired the Opera House by eminent domain, then proceeded to rehabilitate it. The first step was to prevent its collapse in 2010, and now Phase 1 – rehabilitating all 5 of its street level commercial spaces.

This project was #2 of the top 11 Communities for Maine’s Future awardees and received a $400,000 grant, which was subsequently “frozen”. While many other CFMF projects stalled or collapsed, Norway proceeded with determination and their optimistic spirit – that grand accomplishments can occur in small steps.

“Most Endangered” is now a memory for this pivotal property, as 5 beautifully rehabilitated storefronts once again enliven Main Street – two are leased, and move-in is underway! These storefronts provide the foundation for the Opera House to once again be the star of downtown Norway setting the stage for Phase 2 – rehabilitating the upper floor opera hall itself.
Ribbon-cutting invitation
It takes a village to create success. Many organizations, local and statewide, and countless dedicated individuals contributed, giving life to Margret Mead’s famous observation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Downtown revitalization is intrinsically complex and the Norway Opera House was particularly challenging. Lachman Architects & Planners, whose professional mission is Building Community – with community buildings, provided a unique and integrated blend of professional services including grant writing, planning, architecture, Maine and Federal Historic Rehab Tax Credits, and cross coordination of legal, financial, accounting considerations.

Fundraising continues and contributions are most welcome. Please visit www.saveouroperahouse.org.

Article contributed by Lachman Architect & Planners. Photo by Brenda Melhus.