Lottery funds give the Civic a giant lift

Supporters of The Dalles Civic Auditorium visited the theater Tuesday morning to celebrate being awarded a $745,000 grant from the state of Oregon that will help pay for renovations. Left to right are: Dennis Morgan, president of the Civic Auditorium Historic Preservation Committee; Mayor Steve Lawrence; committee members Lisa Commander and Leon Surber; and Elizabeth Wallis, the Civic’s program manager. Below, Mahlcolm McDonald, a carpenter with Griffin Construction, works from a hydraulic lift about 30 feet off the ground.

Photo by Jesse Burkhardt.
Supporters of The Dalles Civic Auditorium visited the theater Tuesday morning to celebrate being awarded a $745,000 grant from the state of Oregon that will help pay for renovations. Left to right are: Dennis Morgan, president of the Civic Auditorium Historic Preservation Committee; Mayor Steve Lawrence; committee members Lisa Commander and Leon Surber; and Elizabeth Wallis, the Civic’s program manager. Below, Mahlcolm McDonald, a carpenter with Griffin Construction, works from a hydraulic lift about 30 feet off the ground.

Those lottery tickets everybody buys and few win with are about to pay off handsomely for The Dalles Civic Auditorium.

Earlier this week, Dennis Morgan, president of the Civic Auditorium Historic Preservation Committee, said the building will be getting a $745,000 grant — courtesy of Oregon’s lottery funds.

“They approved the funds for us, specifically for the theater,” Morgan said. “This is a huge infusion.”

He said the Civic enlisted the help of state Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, who succeeded in getting lottery funds to help pay for refurbishing the Civic’s theater.

The theater has been closed since a concert by the Trail Band in 2015.

Morgan explained that during that concert, small pieces of plaster in the aging structure were falling. The Civic board made the decision to close off that section of the building until it became possible to restore some of the theater’s original grandeur.

Mayor Steve Lawrence said the city tried to get state funds for the project previously, without success.

“The year before we asked for $1 million, and they turned us down,” he said. “They selected other projects, but asked us to come back again next time. The state had $200 million to give out this year, and every year they designate where the lottery dollars will go.”

On May 19, Lawrence went to Salem to make a personal appeal for the funds before a joint committee of the Oregon House and Senate that decides how and where to allocate lottery dollars. Numerous other officials and advocates were there from around the state asking for financial help with their own projects.

“The room was full. We each got four minutes before the joint committee that makes the decisions,” Lawrence explained. “The money is designated to go out for just this kind of project.”

Morgan agreed.

“Lottery proceeds go to various capital projects around the state, including infrastructure, historical preservation, art, and community development,” Morgan said. “We hit on numerous levels.”

As immensely beneficial as it is, Morgan said obtaining the $745,000 still won’t be enough to complete all the necessary renovations to the theater, because there is so much that needs to be upgraded after years of neglect.

“Even scaled back to the nuts and bolts, we’re probably looking at $3 million,” he said.

Civic committee member Leon Surber thought that might work to the advantage of the theater.

“The scaled-back version will maintain the authenticity of the original building,” Surber explained. “This way, we can put it back in a way that’s more original.”

Lawrence said for the theater to be an appealing and effective venue for performance artists, the facility needs to be brought up to modern standards, but he agreed that should only be taken so far.

“We don’t want to lose the original character of the theater,” he said.

The theater is currently in the process of being repaired with $300,000 from city urban renewal funds. In recent weeks, a construction crew from Griffin Construction has removed all the deteriorating plaster, put in a new ceiling and added 14 inches of insulation.

In addition, they have installed new drywall on the walls of the theater and repaired the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

“Our HVAC is now up to capacity, so hopefully when we’re entertaining in the wintertime we don’t need to ask people to bring blankets,” Morgan joked. “We will have an insulated and heated and cooled space.

“The chandeliers will be restored and put back, and the perimeter of the roof and the area of the roof above the stage has been redone.”

The roughly 450 seats in the lower level of the theater were removed to make room for a hydraulic lift, which was needed because the ceilings are approximately 40 feet high, and there was no other method of putting the new drywall into place. The lift will also be needed for texturing and painting the drywall in the next phase of repair.

Although Griffin’s team had been prepared to remove the hydraulic lift, tear out the ramp that allowed the lift to get onto the floor of the theater, and put the seats back into place, the news that lottery dollars were going to become available changed those plans.

According to Morgan, the objective is to reopen the theater for events this fall, especially an upcoming Christmas show.

On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, the local band “Got Your Six” is planning a musical variety show at the theater. And in December, the “Trail Band” has a holiday performance scheduled.

Elizabeth Wallis, program manager for the Civic, said she anticipates the current theater renovation work will be completed in time for both shows.

Lawrence believes a renovated theater could be a significant draw for tourists and performers.

“The Civic’s theater would be the biggest venue of its kind between Portland and Boise,” he said. “It would give us the ability to host conventions and bigger events.”

But there is still a lot of work yet to be completed and Morgan said no decisions have yet been made as to how the forthcoming state funds will be spent.

“We’re going to have to sharpen the pencils and see what we can do with that money,” he said. “If we could get grants from other entities, it’s possible we could complete the theater with all the improvements we’d like to see. We’d like it to be a fully functioning theater.”

The Civic Auditorium was constructed in 1921, and saw many decades of active use by the community. However, by the 1970s the building was in disuse.

“A lot of people then were ready to turn it into a parking lot,” Morgan said.

In 1991, after the building sat empty for about 20 years, the Civic Auditorium Historic Preservation Committee was formed by citizens who saw the building’s value and historical importance.

Since the committee was formed, roughly $2 million has been raised and invested in upgrading the Civic.

“This place was a wreck,” said Lawrence. “We redid the Fireside Room, five bathrooms, the foyer, the elevator, and the upstairs kitchen. It’s been a step by step process, and the theater is the last step we need to complete.”

As part of the next phase of renovations, Morgan said the committee would like to get the new drywall textured and painted, and he’d like to make the theater compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We’re grandfathered in and don’t have to do it, but if we can provide something that is ADA-compliant, we’ll be ahead of the game,” Morgan said.

Lawrence said, as the Civic raises additional money, the lighting and sound systems could be improved and the stage reconstructed.

Morgan pointed out, however, that those enhancements can be done later.

“That’s on our wish list, as opposed to what we need,” he said.

Committee member Lisa Commander said the project was well worth all the time and effort so many people have put into it over the past 25 years.

“There’s a lot of history in this place,” she said.

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