Alma College Assumes Ownership of Wright Opera Block Development

“The Opera House is key to the college’s strategic goals of driving investment in the downtown, leveraging college resources for the benefit of the college and community alike, and helping both thrive.” — Jeff Abernathy

Artist rendering of renovated Opera House.Artist rendering of renovated Opera House.

Alma College takes ownership of the Wright Opera Block development in downtown Alma under the terms of a four-way agreement reached with the original developer, local contractors and a finance organization.

In reviving the stalled development project:

  • Alma College will receive ownership of the property.
  • The college will pay local contractors, with a secured interest, 100 percent of amounts claimed for work previously performed on the property.
  • The college will settle the debt owed to the finance organization by the developer.
  • All lawsuits involved in the stalled redevelopment on the property will be dismissed.

“I am extremely pleased to announce that we have reached this agreement,” says Alma College President Jeff Abernathy. “Our plan remains consistent with the original concept for the Opera House, to develop the property’s ground level as retail space and the second and third floors as student apartment housing.

“The Opera House is key to the college’s strategic goals of driving investment in the downtown, leveraging college resources for the benefit of the college and community alike, and helping both thrive,” he says. “I envision a renovated, vibrant Opera House in our downtown sparking the local economy.”

The agreement settles claims by Develop Michigan, the finance organization that was seeking repayment of construction loans issued in 2015, and several contractors who had not been paid for previous work.

In September, the Alma Opera Block LLC — a corporation formed and 100 percent owned by Alma College — was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in support of the Wright Opera Block redevelopment. The performance-based grant doesn’t pay until the project on the property is completed.

“We appreciate the cooperation of Develop Michigan, the secured contractors, the MEDC and all the parties involved in working together to come to this agreement for resolving the Opera House redevelopment,” says Abernathy. “We also are grateful for the ongoing cooperation of the City of Alma and Greater Gratiot Development and their support for a resolution.”

Next steps for the college are to preserve and stabilize the Opera House renovations achieved to date. Construction will resume after Alma College determines a financial path to complete the project.

“The redevelopment of the Opera House block is a transformative project for the downtown,” says Aeric Ripley, director of the Alma Downtown Development Authority. “Once completed, it will spur on additional downtown development.”

In addition to the retail space and apartments for approximately 50 students, the upper levels of the Opera House will include several common areas plus teaching and conference room space.

“Through this entire process, the college and community have shared a vision for a revitalized Opera House as the centerpiece of the downtown district,” says James Wheeler, president of Greater Gratiot Development. “They are to be commended for a never-wavering commitment to this project.”

While the project has encountered many difficulties, Abernathy noted his gratitude to the former developer, Kurt Wassenaar.

“But for Kurt’s willingness to step in and purchase the property seven years ago, we would most likely have a parking lot in the middle of the historic downtown,” says Abernathy. “I am grateful for his efforts and the efforts of so many who will help us to finish the building and make it the spark for downtown development for the 21st century as it was for the 20th.”

The 55,000-square foot Alma Opera House, originally constructed in 1879 by lumber baron Ammi Wright, stands on the corner of Superior and State streets. Ammi Wright played a significant role in both the founding of Alma College in 1886 and the early development of the town of Alma.

Story published on December 07, 2017