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Restrooms point of contention in Memorial Opera House negotiations

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

A proposed renovation of the Memorial Opera House continued to be negotiated by the Porter County Council and Commissioners Tuesday.

The initial proposal would've rehabilitated the historic building and connected it to the former sheriff's residence. But now, the commissioners have proposed a smaller list of improvements — focusing on the roof, bricks, plaster, lighting and heating and cooling systems — with an estimated cost between $2.6 and $4.4 million.

But some council members feel additional restrooms should be kept as part of the project. Greg Simms said people using wheelchairs have trouble using the current ones, especially the women's restroom.

"I don't know how anyone can sit there on the toilet," Simms said during Tuesday's council meeting. "It's so tiny. It needs to be expanded."

The Memorial Opera House Foundation would not commit to covering the cost of restrooms but agreed to pay for new auditorium seats. That leaves the county with the $5 million dollars in American Rescue Plan funds the council allocated — then un-allocated — to complete the project. In the end, the council and commissioners agreed to support the scaled-back renovation, with restrooms as an alternate if they can fit into that budget. Now, it'll be up to the commissioners to approve contracts for updated design work. Then, the proposal goes back to the council to appropriate the funding once again.

As for what to do with the sheriff's residence, council members were hesitant to support the commissioners' plan to rent it out. Commissioner Barb Regnitz said two appraisals suggest the county could earn more than $4,000 a year, by renting out the whole building.

"It's been vacant for over than three years. We're paying utilities on it. It's costing us about $10,000 a year in NIPSCO bills to keep it so that it doesn't fall apart," Regnitz told council members.

The initial plan was to rent out the building as-is, but the commissioners believe they could generate more interest by renovating it. However, some council members would rather the residence be used to house offices for the opera house.

The commissioners could still move forward without the council's approval but would be limited to renting out part of the building for $25,000 a year or less.