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Briggs Opera House owner seeks suitor to guide the venue’s future

  • Photographed at its marquee in White River Junction, Vt., on May 28, 2020, Briggs Opera House owner David Briggs is looking for a long-term future for the performance space. Briggs and business consultant Jennifer Byrne have produced a request for proposals in search of a new owner-operator. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The cast of "Songs for a New World" recognize the band at the conclusion of the show in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, Vt., on Sunday, May 3, 2015. It was the last Northern Stage production to be held at Briggs before the theater company moved to their new downtown location. Opera House owner David Briggs continues to lease out the space for other performances. (Valley News - Sarah Shaw) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • With the stage set for the cancelled "Man of La Mancha" standing in White River Junction, Vt., on May 29, 2020, Briggs Opera House owner David Briggs prepares for a meeting with collaborators to talk about the Virtual Briggs Opera House, an idea to produce and film performers on the stage for YouTube. "It's a little bit of Grand Old Opry and a little of Austin City Limits," he said of the idea. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2020 8:48:27 PM
Modified: 5/30/2020 8:48:25 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — Since 2015, when Northern Stage moved out, the Briggs Opera House has hosted a variety of performances — dance company recitals, film festivals, theater productions and concerts.

All of this activity has shown the continued need for the venerable theater, yet all of the performances and other events have been organized on an ad hoc basis, with property owner David Briggs acting as the part-time leasing agent. Eventually, he got a grant to hire a part-time assistant.

While the current operation had been working well (before the novel coronavirus shut it down), it isn’t sustainable, Briggs said.

In an attempt to secure a long-term future for the Briggs Opera House, Briggs and business consultant Jennifer Byrne produced a request for proposals last week in search of a new owner-operator. The theater, and the Gates-Briggs Building that houses it, are owned by Briggs, 73, and his 98-year-old mother, Bonnie, and with no other family following them, it’s time to look for a successor to run the theater as a prelude to an eventual sale of the building.

“The fact that it’s worked so well is why we’re taking the initiative we are now,” Briggs said in an interview.

A January 2015 public forum found widespread support for keeping the theater available as a performance space, and since Northern Stage moved out that July after occupying the theater for 17 years, it has hosted events by more than 40 organizations, including White River Indie Films; JAG Productions, a pioneering African-American theater company; We the People Theatre, which has produced Working and 1776 at the Briggs; Opera North; and a range of concerts promoted by Quechee musician Dave Clark.

While Briggs has had conversations with many people in the Upper Valley arts community about the future of the opera house, he hasn’t found a successor. The request for proposals is meant to be a nudge, Briggs said, both to the many performers who have made use of the opera house and to patrons of the arts who have supported other arts organizations.

Under the plan Briggs and Byrne have laid out, a new operator would need to create a vision for a permanent community arts space in conjunction with the Friends of the Briggs Opera House, a nonprofit Briggs and Byrne are creating; continue to program events at the opera house and maintain the schedule; prepare for and facilitate a fundraising plan for a restoration of the theater; and accept ownership of the theater, which would be conveyed as a condominium, at the cost of $1.

While the purchase price is small, the sweat equity and community investment would be considerable.

“It is anticipated,” the request for proposals says, “that the scope of the project will be $3.5 million for restoration and $6.5 million for establishment of an endowment fund for a total project goal of $10 million.”

Expressions of interest are due by July 1 and proposals by Aug. 1. The request envisions a handoff in September 2021 and a grand opening of a renovated theater by September 2025.

In addition to the theater on the building’s second floor, the new owner would take possession of street-level space currently occupied by Newberry Market that would serve as a new entrance to the theater once the renovation is complete. There is an elevator in the building, but most people currently get to the theater via a long flight of stairs.

“I call it a gut rehab to bring it to Northern Stage or Barrette Center standards,” Briggs said.

Northern Stage built its new home, the Barrette Center for the Arts, on the former Miller Auto property on Gates Street, for $7.4 million, part of a capital campaign that raised $9 million.

If the Briggs Opera House’s long-term future is secured, it would continue an eventful run. Founded in the 1890s as the Gates Opera House, when White River Junction was a booming railroad hub, it fell into disuse after World War II and became retail space in the 1950s. After the closing of the JJ Newberry department store, the opera house was reopened in 1985 and was run by River City Arts, a nonprofit founded by the Briggs family and others.

Northern Stage began its occupancy in 1998. These were the early days of the influx of artists that has revived White River Junction over the past three decades.

What the theater has going for it are its size and location. At 240 seats, it’s larger than most venues in the area, but, more importantly, is small enough to feel intimate. Lebanon Opera House, by comparison, has 800 seats, and Woodstock’s Town Hall Theatre has 386.

Briggs said he has approached arts organizations about taking on the opera house. “They demurred because they were focused on their own missions,” he said. In some cases on their very survival. That’s doubly true since the coronavirus struck.

“We got really crushed by this pandemic,” said Perry Allison, a founder of We the People Theatre, which was three days away from opening a production of Man of La Mancha when it had to shut down. She said she’d like to see the opera house remain in use, but the fundraising goal is a steep climb.

Collaboration among arts organizations has been strong, Allison said. But, as Briggs suggested, they all have their own objectives to think about, and the groups that use the opera house are quite small and young.

“All of these organizations are too close to the edge,” Allison said. Northern Stage, where Allison was managing director a decade ago, showed that amazing things are possible, but it had a long track record before it raised the money to build its own theater.

“I hope there’s someone out there who sees this as a good opportunity,” Allison said.

Dave Clark, who has programmed about a dozen concerts at the Briggs Opera House, also cited its size and location as selling points and said Briggs is doing the right thing in seeking a long-term owner-operator.

“I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to put together a renovation plan,” Clark said. For the right person, “it’s an ideal spot,” he said.

While the coronavirus might seem like a hurdle, Briggs said, he thinks it might work in the opera house’s favor. Artists who would otherwise be working on productions are currently idle, and might have more time to entertain big dreams.

“This is planning for the long-term future,” said Byrne, whose business consulting office is in the Gates-Briggs Building. “We’ll be back in theaters again, and now is as good a time as any.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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