It sits midway on Touro Street, the heart of historic Newport, a reminder of what once was, and of what might be.
The old Opera House, a majestic building that once presented some of the most cherished stars of eras past, has been vacant for more than two decades, the subject of what has been a long restoration project.
The $27 million endeavor has gone through its fits and starts, stalled by a pandemic and inability to raise the millions needed to complete the project, and now with construction suspended …. but just temporarily.
A $250,000 grant from the Doris Duke Foundation is breathing new life into the project, providing operating funds and money to bring on a professional fundraiser who has been involved in similar projects across the country.
That consultant, The Palmer Westport Group of Reno, Nevada, came aboard last fall, conducted a study, and is now in what it calls the quiet phase of an aggressive fundraising campaign.
What Susan Palmer, president of Palmer Westport Group, faces is the daunting task of raising nearly $20 million to finish the project in an environment and years of promise that has left many in the community frustrated and skeptical.
Palmer is confident the funds can be raised but realizes that the “slow progress” has become a considerable obstacle. Initially, she conducted a study to determine whether the community had the capacity to raise the nearly $20 million needed to finish the project.
She says when the study was complete, she was enthusiastic about the possibilities.
Talk to Palmer and Melissa Quinn, managing director and the theater’s only employee, and you get a sense that maybe things are changing, that over the next few months, disappointment and frustration could turn to promise and excitement. There’s an energy about them, and a belief that the restoration envisioned decades ago is a real possibility.
So, in March, Palmer says, the Newport Performing Arts Center Board assembled an impressive “fundraising campaign team.”
Engaging board members and fundraising team members, along with other contributions, raised more than $2 million.
Still, the fundraising team has a daunting task, some $17 million worth. Spearheading that effort is an impressive group of individuals who make up the fundraising team. Members of the group, Palmer says, are:
- John Cratin, NPAC board chair, a business management consultant and former co-chair of the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
- Ed Henry, NPAC board member, and former president and CEO of the Doris Duke Foundation, and currently chair of United States Artists.
- Christopher Bicho, NPAC board member, and president and founder of Landings Real Estate Group.
- Marc Lewinstein, a financier, lawyer, and author who is currently senior advisor to River Street Capital in New York.
- Cynthia Sinclair, a philanthropist, who with her late husband, Robert, supported numerous Newport area arts’ organizations, including the Newport Art Museum, Spring Bull Gallery, Island Moving Company, and Newport Music Festival.
- Alison Vareika, NPAC board member, and co-owner of William Vareika Fine Arts Gallery. She is a small business owner, arts advocate, community activist, preservationist, philanthropist, and choral singer. She is a former NPAC chair, and former Aquidneck Land Trust president. She’s served as a trustee of Trinity Repertory Company, and a member of the State Council on the Arts. She also has performed with the Rhode Island Civic Choral & Orchestra, and the Berkshire Choral International.
- Colin Kane, a founding partner of Peregrine Group, LLC, Perigrine Real Estate Advisory, LLC and Peregrine Property Management, LLC, a real estate development, property management firm, with offices in Rumford and Newport, Rhode Island, and Boston. The company’s Newport projects include Hammett’s Wharf Hotel, Newport Yachting Center, and the SS Oliver Hazard Perry, among other numerous ventures across the region.
- Jack Murphy, president, and chief executive officer at BankNewport. Previously was president of business banking at Citizen’s Bank.
The theater, just a few doors way from the very active Jane Pickens Theater, attracts passersby regularly, who peer in to view the progress. And despite the construction pause, much has been done. Some $8 million has been completed in structural repairs, a new stage and balcony have been built.
When the work resumes, Quinn says, “depends on when resources become available.” Palmer hopes that’s later this year. Speculation on a completion date remains elusive.