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Community members eager to grow Lunenburg Opera House as arts centre

Folk Harbour Society President Harold Pearse rests against one of the original brick pillars of the Lunenburg Opera House. Pearse said the society is both excited and nervous over their purchase. - Josh Healey
Folk Harbour Society President Harold Pearse rests against one of the original brick pillars of the Lunenburg Opera House. Pearse said the society is both excited and nervous over their purchase. - Josh Healey - Josh Healey

‘It’s a risk and it’s an opportunity’

The Lunenburg Folk Harbour Society has a new home.

The group recently purchased the Lunenburg Opera House from businessman Farley Blackman, who had poured millions of dollars into the building’s restoration before leaving the community.

Harold Pearse, the society president, said the sale represents a new chapter for the historic property.

“It has been a long-term goal and a dream, in some cases, of the society owning a venue,” he said. “We’re both excited and nervous.”

Pearse added the deal took six months to negotiate and was made possible by a grant from the Fordi Family Foundation.

But the society has purchased a venue in need of repair; despite Blackman’s decade of restoration efforts, significant work still needs to be on the building’s upper levels.

Pearse said he has no illusions: with the sale done, the real work can now begin.

Buy a building, make a plan

Although most of the main level is completed, Pearse said some of the buildings supports still need to be reinforced. - Josh Healey
Although most of the main level is completed, Pearse said some of the buildings supports still need to be reinforced. - Josh Healey

Blackman sold the opera house to the society for just over $733,000, a significant drop from his original asking price; the property had a $2.25 million price tag when it was listed back in 2017.

The combination of Blackman’s interest in the arts and the Fordi grant were key in making the deal possible, noted Pearse.

“(Farley) really wanted the building to be owned and maintained by an arts group,” said Pearse, adding that the grant covered 60 per cent of the sales cost.

Pearse said the next step is to continue the restoration of the historic building.

Significant work has been done over the last number of years to restore the 1909-built structure. This includes the revival of the mezzanine, main theatre, floors, and exterior.

Now, said Pearse, the society plans to tackle the project in three separate stages over the next five years.

The first step is to apply for several federal and provincial grants to help cover renovations costs.

Pearse added that the society will also launch a fundraising campaign in addition to approaching town council about potential tax exemption or relief.

“There’s a process for that,” he said.

The plan is to then renovate the basement, including the addition of a green room for performers, an office, bathroom, and windows.

Lastly, Pearse said the society would also renovate the upper floors which require structural and cosmetic work.

Centre for the arts

Many of the rooms in the building have been completely renovated.  This includes the revival of the mezzanine, the 300-seat main theatre, most of the floors and exterior. - Josh Healey
Many of the rooms in the building have been completely renovated. This includes the revival of the mezzanine, the 300-seat main theatre, most of the floors and exterior. - Josh Healey

Although there are years of restoration work ahead, Pearse said the opera house is available as a venue for both the society’s iconic Folk Harbour Festival and for other groups.

The theatre space currently has around 300 seats, including a gallery and a new lighting and sound system.

The society has already been approached by several arts groups in town looking to rent the space; the Lunenburg Doc Fest has already committed to using it this year.

“It’ll be well used,” he said.

Pamela Segger, the executive director for Lunenburg Doc Fest, said her group was delighted about the sale.

“We had a great concern about the fact that we could potentially lose a major centre that is really important to the heart of downtown,” she said. “I think it’s vital that we have the space.”

She also said that Doc Fest has been growing over the last number of years and hopes the festival can grow along with the opera house.

“We were rooting for them with this purchase,” she said.

Lunenburg Coun. Joseph Carnevale echoed Segger’s approval when asked about the purchase.

He said the sale represented a new start for the opera house following the withdrawal of Blackman as a result of disagreements with the town.

“Farley and Courtney Blackman put a lot of work and funds into the restoration of the place, (they) will never make that back. I think what it sold for was like a gift for the Folk Harbour Society,” he said.

He added the venue was valuable to the town and local businesses.

“We the town should do whatever we can to support them as they take on this new home and make use of the total space,” said Carnevale.

Responsibility and risk

But the purchase doesn’t come without risk.

Pearse said part of the agreement with Blackman included taking on the existing mortgage on the property.

“It’s with a private lender but we investigated with the banks and it’s competitive,” he said.

He added that the society did its due diligence before signing the paperwork, ranging from building and fire inspections to budgeting.

Still, he said, some members of the board were concerned over the scope of the project.

“It’s a risk and it’s an opportunity,” said Pearse.

“And, as our real estate agent says, it’s also an investment.”

joshua.rj.healey@gmail.com

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