OURAY – Facing a Nov. 1 deadline and still needing $250,000, as of September the campaign to save the Wright Opera House in Ouray seemed dead in the water. Now, after several successful fundraising events and some critical help from donors, the impossible has been accomplished as the Friends of the Wright Opera House Board of Directors announced this week that enough pledges have been raised to save the 122-year-old building that will serve as a center for the arts in Ouray.
In a time of economic uncertainty, more than $750,000 has been raised through private funding and grants since the campaign to save the Wright was launched in December 2008.
“We expect that most of the money should be in the bank by the end of next week,” Friends of the Wright Opera House Board Chair Dee Williams said on Monday.
“The residents of Ouray County have done an incredible thing.”
The Friends of the Wright Opera House’s mission was to raise enough funds to purchase the historic building and then update it into a vibrant and active center for arts and culture. Its plans are to complete an upgrade of the auditorium into one of the finest small performance venues in the area. The planned upgrade and historic preservation project would also create additional retail space and house the Ouray County Arts Center with offices and classrooms for local nonprofit organizations.
Williams said the last two months of fundraising has been a roller coaster of emotions. The board had to work its way through a $250,000 deficit needed to meet a Nov. 1 deadline to keep a $75,000 acquisition grant from the Gates Family Foundation.
“By mid-September, we were afraid we just couldn’t make it,” Williams said. “We were stuck at that point, needing $250,000 to meet the goal, not making any headway. Quitting seemed almost inevitable. That was hard for us to even contemplate because the community has been so generous and so enthusiastic for this civic project to go forward.
“We felt a huge responsibility to them to not give up.”
Friends Boardmember Joyce Linn said it was hard to watch some of the supporting foundations’ assets diminish in the declining economy, realizing that they would need to reduce their funding for projects like the Wright Opera House.
“The Wright has sat there for a long time awaiting this sort of initiative by someone,” Linn said. “Sort of an ‘everybody talks about it but nobody does it’ situation. Our lowest point was probably this September when it just seemed impossible.”
With so much accomplished toward reaching its fundraising goal, the board called a meeting of its major donors to explain the situation. According to Williams, the donors went to work and designed several approaches that resulted in reaching the goal in time.
“Some of them increased their own commitments, talked to other donors, created some special publicity, and planned a couple of very successful fundraising events,” she said. “Having the community come forward to match the $65,000 challenge from one of our donors was an amazing experience. During October, [the effort] actually brought in even more than the $65,000 in new gifts, as well as increased gifts from prior donors.”
Two of the major contributors in the fundraising campaign are the current Wright Opera House owners Larry and Alice Leeper, who reduced the price of the building from $1 million to $850,000 last July, and then reduced the price even further in the past two months.
“This is a major gift to the community by the Leepers, making it possible to acquire the building and operate a portion of it as a nonprofit to create a center for arts in Ouray County.”
According to the board’s original plan, the fundraising campaign to save the Wright Opera House would be made up of approximately 20 percent private funds and 80 percent grant funding. However, the financial crash caused an approximate loss of up to 55 percent in some foundations’ assets and in the end, grants for the acquisition were $310,000. Private funding by 227 donors provided the rest of the $750,000 price plus the cushion needed for closing costs, insurance and other expenses associated with assuming ownership.
“If we had known we would eventually need to ask the community for almost $500,000 to make this happen, I am not sure we would have had nerve enough to try it,” Linn said.
A closing date is tentatively set for Dec. 29. However, contract preparation by the Colorado Historic Fund may take longer than that. The board estimates that the closing will be no later than Jan. 31.
After working their way through the technicalities of closing on the property, the board will turn its attention to organizing the renovation of the building and the concept of expanding it to better accommodate theater performances and arts instruction, as well as creating a special setting for other performing arts.
“The next step is to get an architect and get some renditions done so we know exactly where we are going with this,” Williams said. “We want to have an absolute definite plan on how the building is going to look and what it is going to have.”
A celebration is being planned for sometime next January and since second homeowners had a significant impact on the fundraising, another celebration is being planned when they return in early summer. “Our hope is to be able to present the plans for the future at that event. Due to current leases, we will not be able to actually accomplish much work on the building until after the summer, but we will spend this winter planning and writing grant requests.”
“The opera house is saved as far as this huge step of purchasing it is concerned,” Linn said. “There is much to do in the true sense of ‘saving’ it. Renovation. Rehab to fuller uses. Creating the spaces to accomplish the identified needs and potential uses. It will be added to the considerable list of preserved and rehabilitated historical buildings in our county, which includes residences, commercial buildings and ranches.”
“We will work with professionals in all the technicalities relating to rehab, theater design, sound, lighting, acoustics, energy and environmental concerns,” said Boardmember Jim Opdahl, who will work closely with a project manager on behalf of the board. “It is our intention to have this project done by local professionals, artisans and contractors. “Actually we hope we might even count on some volunteer workers. Our finances will be depleted except for rental revenue and grants, but this is an exciting time.”
To learn more about the campaign to save the Wright Opera House go to savethewright.org