Intermission drags on for opera house fix
The state Assembly budget’s $500,000 boost for Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House renovation will not mean a thing if the city cannot free up the money to cover its portion of the project.
“When you’re balancing out whether to pay for a historic building or neighborhood needs, the choice becomes clear,” said Oshkosh Alderman Bob Poeschl.
The Assembly’s version of the budget commits state bonding for the project if the city, which owns the opera house, can come up with a plan to cover the difference. But there is no cost estimate for the project.
The city shut down the opera house in March after an engineer discovered two trusses in the 126-year-old building’s roof needed immediate repairs.
The repair work is out for bid, and city leaders will get a better idea of the cost when bids are submitted next month.
“I’d love for it to be $1, but I don’t think that will be the case,” said state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, who added the $500,000 in bonding to the state’s capital budget. “This is going to be a significant project. It could mean 85 to 100 jobs.”
But if the city’s share of the money is too much for taxpayers, the project likely will be delayed.
If that happens, Hintz said, the state money could disappear. Because the state is offering bonding, any failure on the city’s part to cover the remaining costs means the state will not pay.
Several GOP lawmakers during budget deliberations used the project as a prime example of unnecessary spending when the state is trying to climb out of a multibillion-dollar budget hole.
“If the community wants to have it, then the community can figure out a way to pay for it,” said state Rep. John Townsend, R-Fond du Lac.
But Poeschl said the project is almost certainly out of the question without state support.
If the opera house’s doors remain closed, the region loses one of its best tourist attractions and economic drivers, said Joseph Ferlo, executive director of The Oshkosh Opera House Foundation Inc.
“People hear ‘opera house’ and think one thing, but this is a regional arts and education center,” he said. “We attract national touring acts. I think the project stands up to the scrutiny.”
If the money remains in the budget, the state Building Commission still would have to sign off on the project before authorizing the bonding. But Hintz said he realizes the greater challenge might be at the local level.
City Manager Mark Rohloff, who is figuring out city finances and possible capital campaigns for the project, was unavailable for comment before deadline Wednesday.
The opera house is a national historic building worth maintaining, Poeschl said. But all Wisconsin cities are struggling to prioritize services.
“If the work doesn’t get done, it only gets easier to keep postponing it and saying, ‘We’ll do it when we have the money,’” he said. “But we have very little information right now, and this is already a very, very challenging time for taxpayers.”