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Memorial Opera House renovation plans presented

rendering of the Memorial Opera House and sheriff's residence renovation and expansion plans
rendering of the Memorial Opera House and sheriff's residence renovation and expansion plans

The Porter County Council wants to move ahead with the renovation and expansion of the Memorial Opera House. Representatives from Schmidt Associates and the Skillman Corporation detailed their plans during Tuesday's meeting.

The $6.5 million project would replace crumbling bricks and windows at the Opera House and the former sheriff's residence, and build a connector between the two. Skillman architect Brad Brutout said that would make both buildings accessible to those with disabilities and let the buildings share mechanical systems.

"This project's goal is to kind of restore and preserve these existing historic buildings, while really enhancing the user experience associated with it," Bruthout said.

The connector would also house the Opera House restrooms, freeing up space in the lobby, while the 60-year-old auditorium seats would be replaced.

But it still remains to be seen how exactly the county would pay for the project. American Rescue Plan funds are off the table. That idea drew backlash from residents.

However, Council President Jeremy Rivas said the county is in good financial condition, and there's no reason to stop. "I'd like to ask our attorney, along with the commissioners' attorney and [Auditor] Vicki [Urbanik], to look at a revenue bond — another revenue bond, if it's possible, out of the foundation revenue or whatever," Rivas said.

That funding would stem from investment earnings from the county's sale of the old hospital. Council members agreed to ask county officials to explore financing options for the Opera House, the current jail and the Center Township Garage.

Opera House executive director Scot MacDonald said that while the building needs renovations, he's very proud of the facility. "The fact that it's a living memorial and, you know, the lawmakers back in 1893 didn't want this to just be a plaque or a statue, that speak volumes to me. I think it speaks volumes to a lot of people in this room that it's a living memorial still serving its original purpose. So we love to show that off," MacDonald said.

If approved, the project would be bid out in late October, while construction would start next March.