A quiet clapping could be heard as members of the Minnesota Senate Capital Investment Committee climbed to the second floor of the 112-year-old Batcher Block Opera House in Staples, Thursday, Oct. 3, and took in their first view of the artistic epicenter of the building.
Watching their reactions nervously was building owner Colleen Frost. She’d been anxiously waiting for a moment like this for the last 17 years. Frost recalled the great history of the 1907 building and proclaimed how rare a building like this is, with such well preserved art on the walls and ceilings. But the gathering of these people made this day especially joyous for her. She was hopeful they'd get a feel for what this piece of history could become for the future of the region.
The looks on their faces made it clear to Frost that they understood what a special place it is. The committee was greeted with goodies, warm welcomes and a bag full of information about the project.
“We see a lot of these projects but when we get a response like this one from a community, we know there’s some heart and soul to this thing,” Senate Capital Investment Committee chair David Senjem (R-Rochester) said upon entering the lower level of the building. The group of eight senate committee members tipped their heads back and gazed at the painted ceilings, which now have signs of cracking and mold in areas - a problem that will require full restoration. The Fresco patterns and Bavarian architecture is not only rare, but well preserved according to lead artist Carter Averbeck of Omforme Design, who shared how the art would be restored in the building. As all the art was visible, he said they could simply record all the artwork and, following restoration work, they could repaint it to bring it back to its original glory.
Staples Mayor Chris Etzler spoke to the group from the stage of the opera house. He said other area communities are known for something, and he shared that this project could help Staples and surrounding communities get put back on the map.
“It puts not only Staples on the map, it puts the region and even more on the map,” Etzler said.
District 9A Rep. John Poston shared how Staples is already seeing a growing trend thanks to expansions at two local businesses, Sourcewell and Lakewood Health System. He said this type of project would provide a focal point in downtown Staples and the region.
“It’s going to be an economic driver for the area,” Poston said. He along with Sen. Paul Gazelka and Rep. Collin Peterson have shown support for the project, according to Staples Economic Development Authority Director Melissa Radermacher. She hopes, with their help, it will become a reality.
The group concluded their visit with a performance by local musicians Gary and Dawn Timbs, who demonstrated the acoustics of the opera house. Using no microphones, they performed and the sounds filled the entire room. The gentle clapping came to a roar when they finished their song.
What would it be like?
Radermacher shared how with proper funding, half requested in state bonding dollars, the city would be able to create a mixed-use performance and education hub for people of all ages. That would include, of course, the restoration of the opera house, office space for Batcher Block and other non-profits, museum space, artist lodging and residency, room for pop-up events and an expected 300 programs a year, bringing in an anticipated 12,000 visitors per year.
At what cost?
Radermacher shared a price tag of $16 million to make the place shine, which she shared was a high approximate amount that could see some trimming. Half that cost ($8 million) is what the group is requesting in state bonding dollars. The other half would be raised by the group, led by a 24-person steering committee. Radermacher said they would hope to raise that money within a couple years. She went on to share her discussion with Sen. Gazelka, who said that work needs to be done to bring in both state and federal dollars to see the project complete. A capital funding worksheet that Radermacher handed out indicated that the city would acquire the building from Frost and lease the building to a new non-profit organization, not yet named.
The $16 million total covers all pre-design, all renovations, additions and restoration including materials and labor as well as the acquisition of the building. Major additions included artistic new entries into the building and plans for a roof top patio.
Following the visit to the opera house, senate committee members visited Central Lakes College Agriculture and Energy Center in Staples, then Little Falls Minnesota Military and Fishing Museum and Trunk Highway 27 Memorial Bridge to discuss rail grade separation.
The stops concluded the committee’s three-day tour of projects in Northwestern Minnesota.