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For longtime Norway downtown advocate, Opera House project a homecoming gift
OLD COLLEAGUES — Bob Andrews, right, poses with Charleen Chase in front of the Norway Opera House. The two were original members of the Norway Opera House Corporation, registered as a nonprofit in 2000. The group planned on purchasing and rehabilitating the building's first-floor storefronts in 2002.
NORWAY — By now, the saga of the Norway Opera House is familiar to residents of Oxford Hills – the town's seizure of the building by eminent domain, the emergency construction to prevent it from collapsing, the recent scramble to get last-minute funding after state money was withdrawn.
Organizers are pleased to see the project finally moving forward – contractors have been working on the first-floor storefronts for the past two weeks.
Bob Andrews knows more than most how long it has taken to finally get the Opera House rehabilitated.
Andrews, a former Norway resident, was deeply involved not only in registering the Norway Opera House Corporation as a nonprofit in 2000, but also developing Norway's downtown plan, which is still used today, according to Charleen Chase, a NOHC board member who helped Andrews register the group.
Andrews can remember a slew of businesses that went through the Opera House building – from a second-floor movie theater to a uniform manufacturer.
Although Andrews is no longer formally involved in NOHC, he's pleased to see work finally move ahead – especially since he saw the building slip through NOHC's fingers in 2002.
Back then, NOHC was raising money to purchase the building outright. As Chase explains, the group wanted to bring it under community ownership, rehabilitate it and return it to the center of Norway's downtown life.
Andrews says that after NOHC was registered as a non-profit, a local contractor was preparing to buy the building and redevelop the first-floor storefronts.
The idea, explains Chase, was the contractor would rehabilitate the building while NOHC raised enough money to buy it from him – she remembers the group received as much as $100,000 in pledges at the time.
"The challenge for us was to raise enough interest in the community that would be willing to support fundraising and buy the building," Chase recounts.
The deal was set to go through in 2002, when developer Barry Mazzaglia approached the real estate agent with a surprise counter bid.
The agent offered to hold the property for the original contractor for only $500 – when the money didn't materialize, Mazzaglia bought the building out from underneath him for $225,000.
Looking back, Andrews regrets not putting down the $500 to hold the building.
"I kick myself now," Andrews says. "We could have saved all this disaster ... I've spent time lying in bed at night saying 'why in the hell didn't I just pay it?'"
Following the sale, NOHC attempted to work with Mazzaglia to revive the building, but the group was stifled, Andrews says.
"He said he'd work with us, but that never happened," says Chase.
Mazzaglia allowed the building to fall into further disrepair.
In 2007, the first-floor businesses were shuttered after a sprinkler burst and part of the roof collapsed, leaving the building unstable and at risk of collapsing.
The town took the building by eminent domain in 2009 and started work to shore up its back wall. Meanwhile, NOHC started raising money and securing state grants to rehabilitate the first-floor storefronts.
By this time, Andrews had moved with his wife to Kittery and wintered in Scottsdale, AZ and Palm Springs, CA, but revisited the Oxford Hills area regularly.
Andrews says he keeps up with the drama surrounding the Opera House despite moving away, principally by having the Advertiser Democrat forwarded to his seasonal residences.
Andrews is happy to see the rehabilitation work finally moving ahead – he congratulates the current NOHC members and town management for tackling the huge project.
"I'm just tickled to death to see this," Andrews says. "I hope I'm around to see the outlets filled."
Andrews is particularly happy the town saved the building from collapse – he was astonished at the poor shape Mazzaglia left it in.
Although Andrews is modest about his contribution to the Opera House project and Norway's downtown project generally, others laud his dedication to Norway and his appreciation of the town's history and culture.
"He encouraged an emotional attachment within the community," says Chase.
HOMECOMING — Bob Andrews, left, gets a tour of the work being done on the Norway Opera House from current Norway Opera House Corporation board members. Andrews was instrumental in registering the NOHC as a nonprofit group and was deeply involved in the group's original attempt to acquire the building in 2002.