Colorado’s State Historical Fund announced that it would grant $28,500 for the much-needed roof replacement project in early December – about the same time that the Friends of the Wright Opera House were inking the deal with Ridgway resident Joshua Gowans to become the young nonprofit organization’s first executive director.
Gowans moved to the area from with his wife, Heather Hart, about two years ago, after successfully helming the Baltimore Humane Society, and the Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Columbia, S.C. Since moving to Ridgway, he worked in the software development field, and ran the Second Chance Humane Society’s recent capital campaign to acquire the Angel Ridge Ranch, where his wife works as shelter manager.
FWOH board members, over this same time period, after raising $750,000 to purchase the historic building in 2011, with the vision of preserving and renovating it as a center for the performing arts, found themselves with a large empty venue. They launched headlong into the business of booking performers and promoting shows, which has gone exceedingly well, but the hard work has taken its toll. On the heels of the 2012 ambitious new Summer Music Series, the all-volunteer board was beginning to feel the pain.
“It was a slaveship,” FWOH President Dee Williams said. “We were here all the time,” with FWOH’s only paid employee, a part-time administrative assistant, working 50-60 hour weeks.
Even so, “Tons of stuff fell through the cracks,” Williams said. “It had become a much, much, much bigger project than we ever anticipated. We needed an executive director.”
Gowans, whose background includes consulting with nonprofits as they transition from all- volunteers to paid staff, was the perfect fit (he studied nonprofit leadership and management training at Harvard Business School). An expectant father, he was applying for other jobs in the area when FWOH approached him last fall about coming onboard. Gowans said he welcomed the opportunity to get back into nonprofit management, although at the Wright Opera House. “I am in charge of all the details from the trash and the roof to marketing and business aspects to fundraising – and in just a minute, I have to go scrape the sidewalk,” he said one recent wintry afternoon. “A lot of my job is to take the tedium and detail off of board members and allow them to spend time to growing the organization from a higher level. My role is to implement the board’s objectives,” he said, and to keep the board “as effective and efficient as possible.”
Overseeing the roof replacement will consume much of Gowans’ time and energy over the coming year; the job, scheduled to start in March or April, has been awarded to TL Roofing, Inc., out of Durango. Once that project is underway, however, Gowan will shift his attention to the building’s foundation. Having sustained serious damage from floods in the 1920s, and again in the 1980s, it must be stabilized before any more work on the building can be done.
Another priority in 2013 will be seeking funds (likely from the State Historical Fund once again) for the needed foundation work. It will be a big project, involving the tearing up of the sidewalk in front of the Wright Opera House, and building an ADA-compliant entryway.
When these structural repairs are complete, FWOH can then start in on improvements to the building’s interior.
When they bought the Wright Opera House two years ago, FWOH members consulted with Ridgway architect Doug MacFarlane, and began envisioning the building’s interior transformation. Preliminary drawings showed a radically altered ground-level entry area, with a sweeping grand staircase rising to the lobby and theater on the second level. Upstairs, the group dreamed of a larger lobby area where concert-going crowds could comfortably mingle, and a deeper theater, made possible by a large addition to the back of the building, which would also allow for more spacious backstage and green room areas.
FWOH members had to scale back on this dream, however, upon realizing it exceeded their pocketbook. After paying a recent visit to the Historic Sheridan Opera House, in Telluride, they also realized that by maximizing and reconfiguring the existing space, they can avoid the expense of an addition.
For example, with modest modifications, two small ground-level apartments in the back of the building could be retrofitted into greenrooms and an expanded backstage area, and public restrooms could shift to the ground level, opening up more space for a concession area upstairs (and for a better flow of foot traffic from the existing stairway to the theater).
The theater itself, it turns out, is already the perfect size. It can comfortably seat 200 – about as big as Ouray’s audiences get. But attractive balcony seating may still be a possibility.
The long-awaited installation of an elevator, already paid for by a generous donor, could be fast-tracked, without major structural headaches, by placing it in an old stairwell that in recent times was remodeled into a tiny storefront.
Gowans even envisions a rustic wine bar in the building’s stone-clad cellar.
Williams’ ultimate vision for the Wright Opera House is that it grows into an economic engine for the town. “I’d really like this to be the reason people come to Ouray,” she said. “I think we can do that.”
Gowans and Williams agree that to reach their goal, they must collaborate with other arts organizations in the region, such as the Sherbino Theater in Ridgway and the Ouray County Performing Arts Guild, rather than treating them like competitors, to which end talks are underway with both groups.
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