Burlington’s elected leaders were in for a bit of a dramatic twist this week when they received a seemingly routine update on a multi-million-dollar plan to overhaul and expand the city-owned Paramount Theater.
Burlington’s city council was initially presented with some rather trifling developments when this seven-figure endeavor came up for discussion during a monthly work session on Monday. Its members were presented, for instance, with a revised floor plan for the theater’s proposed two-story annex, which had been adjusted based on public feedback to include additional restrooms on both levels. They were also asked to select a color scheme for the so-called fiber cement panels that a consultant in the city’s employ had recommended for the expansion’s exterior.
But with this light fare out of the way, the council was abruptly bombarded with a slate of proposed additions to this project, which was already expected to set the city back nearly $7 million before Monday’s work session. By the time the curtain came down on this rapid-fire sequence, the project’s anticipated cost had shot up by more than 60 percent to just over $11.3 million – and the council was being urged to put up $373,636 of the additional funds right away to cover the design work on the suggested enhancements.
This moment of heightened tension came roughly a year and a half after the city council decided to embark on the theater’s two-story addition after flirting with another, less costly proposal to expand the Paramount’s historic digs at 128 East Front Street. For a time, the city’s decision makers had contemplated merging the theater with another historic storefront that had been home to Moorefield Florist before the city acquired the building in 2017. But they abandoned this plan in the opening week of 2022 and gave the all-clear to demolish the structure.
In the spring of 2022, the council gave its imprimatur to a brand new structure that would add two stories and thousands of square feet to the storied old playhouse, which the city had bought in 1994 from the community theater troupe that had previously owned the facility.
This revised plan to expand the theater included some long-sought improvements to the theater itself, areas for wardrobe changes, stage sets, and cast parties, and additional space for dining and other activities – including a roof deck that would overlook one of more scenic sections of Burlington’s downtown business district.
This initial plan for the theater’s expansion met with decidedly mixed reviews when the city shared its vision with the general public last summer. In response to this feedback, Clearscapes Architecture, the city’s long-standing design firm on the theater’s upgrades, made a number of changes to the original layout – most notably by including additional restrooms on both levels of the proposed expansion.
These design changes were presented to the council on Monday along with a recommendation to cover the expansion’s exterior in monochrome fiber cement panels that were deemed more durable and less costly to keep up than alternative materials like plaster.
The council would go on to spend several minutes agonizing over whether to use an institutional beige or a deep earthy red for these panels – without ever reaching a final consensus.
The city’s elected leaders were then presented with a long inventory of items that weren’t previously included in the plans for the theater’s expansion.
These proposed add-ons included some $683,110 in “system integration” – or upgrades to the existing theater that would ensure its utilities, electrical work, and climate control systems are compatible with those in the two-story annex.
The council was also asked to consider a whole raft of other improvements to the old playhouse, such as $320,000 for new seats, $911,500 for improved lighting both on and off stage, and $476,000 for sound and video streaming enhancements.
Other items in this theatrical wish list included $310,000 for a washer and dryer to launder the wardrobes of actors, $130,000 for a new, more pliable cover to go over the orchestra pit, and $560,000 to enlarge the theater’s dressing rooms as well as the cramped wing to the right of the stage.
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In the end, members of Burlington’s city staff put a rather hefty figure on these sundry improvements. According to the staff’s estimates, the design work alone on these upgrades will run some $373,636 – with another $3,359,125 needed to construct or install all of the proposed enhancements.
The council, for its part, didn’t exactly respond with reflexive nods of assent to this potential encumbrance of more than $4.3 million. In fact, members of the council quizzed city staff members about a number of the proposed add-ons – eliciting, for instance, that the new pit cover is largely a sop to the municipal employees who must wrestle with the stiff, heavy lid that presently serves this same function.
In the meantime, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler suggested that the council’s “financial responsibility” to the city would require its members to vet the proposed expenditures before allotting the funds.
The council was nevertheless hard pressed to decide precisely which of the proposed items to scrap during the work session. In order to ease the conundrum for its members, Nolan Kirkman, one of Burlington’s assistant city managers, encouraged the council to free up the funds for the additional design work, rather than the proposed improvements themselves.
“Tonight, what we’re looking for, is the additional design cost,” he added, “and then we can decide what elements are actually going in during construction.”
The council went on to allocate $373,636 for these designs during its latest regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday.