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Porter County leaders, residents debate Opera House renovation

Memorial Opera House Renovation Plan
rendering of the Memorial Opera House and sheriff's residence renovation and expansion plans

Plans to renovate and expand the Memorial Opera House are drawing opposition from a Porter County commissioner. The $6.5 million project would replace crumbling bricks and windows at the Opera House and the former sheriff's residence, and build a connector between the two. A proposal to use federal American Rescue Plan funds to pay for it drew backlash from residents. Now, some county officials want to use foundation money, generated by the interest earned on the proceeds of the hospital sale.

But Commissioner Jim Biggs says that's irresponsible. "I know that we're at least $2 million underwater in our ability to maintain our county roads. I know that we're millions of dollars in the red in our ability to address storm water issues that should be addressed as soon as possible. I know that we don't have or we have not identified a funding source, a permanent funding source, for our ambulance services here in Porter County," Biggs said during a lengthy discussion during the public comment portion of Tuesday's commissioners meeting.

He said Porter County should stay out of the theater business and instead focus on basic government services. "It is the wrong project at the wrong time using the wrong monies," Biggs added.

But others feel the Opera House has larger benefits as a community gathering space. And some, like county council member Sylvia Graham, believe the renovation is the next logical step in the county's efforts to upgrade its facilities.

"These are the last things in a general maintenance deal that we've been doing with the county buildings, and I am uncertain as to why this is drawing such ire," Graham said.

Others noted that local businesses benefit from out-of-town visitors, and Heather Clark said it's one of the reasons she moved to Porter County. "We love Valparaiso. We loved Porter County. And we were coming here, and when we were looking to move 10 years ago, this seemed like a great place. And we knew about it because of the Opera House.

Still, many believed the opera house could be maintained, without a multi-million-dollar upgrade. Dawn Miller, one of the renovation's most vocal critics, felt it was an unnecessary luxury, at a time when residents are struggling with inflation.

"People in the community are hurting, OK? It's choose gas. It's choose food. Trust me. I'm there, been there, OK? And I just think that right now, this is not the time," Miller told the commissioners.

No formal action was up for consideration during Tuesday's commissioners meeting.