Brittany Pierce Jan 15, 2018

Alma College buys historic opera house

By Brittany Pierce

Copy Editor

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Alma College recently purchased a historic building downtown that eventually will be used for student housing, retail and meeting space and much more. 

The 55,000-square foot Wright Opera House, located at the corner of State and Superior streets, was originally built by lumber baron Ammi Wright, according to a college press release. 

The cost of the purchase was not revealed.   

“Initial funding (to purchase the building) has come from the college’s capital fund,” said Alan Gatlin, the chief operating officer and vice president for finance and administration.   

“The college has also received a Community Re-development grant from the state of Michigan and the project will also qualify for federal tax credits for historic building preservation from the National Parks service.   

The college also hopes to raise money from community members and Alumni who believe the project would add a tremendous value to the college and the community.” 

However, the building is not currently ready to be used by the college. It needs to be further renovated before use.  

“We expect the total project cost before considering the state grants and tax credits will be in the $5 to $6 million range,” said Gatlin.  After the project is complete, the building will be far more than just another residence hall.   

“The basic plan is for retail space on the first floor, some performance and meeting space on the second floor and apartments on the second and third floor. There would also be space for a classroom or two as well.  

The performance space could be used for small concerts, wedding receptions and business meetings,” said Gatlin. 

As of now, it is unclear when the project will be finished and there is no timeline set in place.  

“A time frame to finish the project has yet to be determined, we need to secure all of the necessary remaining funds before we re-start construction,” said Gatlin. 

“Once we re-start we will move as quickly as possible but renovating a historic building that has suffered a major fire is a challenge and does not lend itself to a strict timeline,” he said.   

This is not the first time that someone has attempted to convert the Wright Opera House into housing. In the past, a developer took on the task but failed to complete it.   

“Previously a developer not related to the college purchased the property and was trying to redevelop it.  The college had agreed to lease all of the apartments from the developer if he was successful.   

The college had not tried to buy or develop the property until the current developer failed,” said Gatlin.  

“A few years ago, the current developer experienced problems completing the project and eventually the project stalled.”  

The lender and contractors were not paid and eventually a lawsuit between the lender and the contractors who had been renovating the building and the developer was started. 

“As part of the settlement of that lawsuit the college entered into an agreement where it paid the contractors and the lender certain amounts and the developer in turned signed over ownership of the building to the college. The terms of the agreement between the college, the developer, the lender and the contractors are confidential so we can not disclose the amount of the payments,” said Gatlin.   

As for the other college apartment project downtown, it is unclear when that will be finished or whether that is still an ongoing project at the college.  

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