Finish Line in Sight for Restored Wright Opera House

When completed, the renovated downtown Alma landmark will feature commercial retail space on the property’s ground level and apartments for approximately 40 Alma College students on the second and third floors.

Interior construction activity. Interior construction activity.
With sidewalk fencing installed, steel frames rising and contractor activity buzzing, construction is moving full speed ahead on the restoration of the historic Wright Opera House in downtown Alma.

Substantial completion of the major renovation is projected for mid-August 2019. When restored, the 55,000-square-foot building on the corner of Superior and State streets will feature 15,000-square feet of commercial retail space on the property’s ground level and apartments for approximately 40 Alma College students on the second and third floors.

In addition, the building will feature performance, event and gathering spaces for community activities such as conferences and receptions.

“This is a watershed moment that points to a brighter future for our community,” says Jeff Abernathy, Alma College president. “This project models how colleges and communities can work together for local economic development. Since the 2010 fire, our goal has been to rebuild the Opera House and drive investment to the downtown, and that will happen after all these years. The construction has been a long time coming, but now the finish line is in sight for a revitalized Opera House in Alma.”

Artist's rendering of the renovated Opera House. Artist's rendering of the renovated Opera House.The Opera House project is funded entirely by community benefactors and alumni and friends of the college. In addition to a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, donors from the community have provided more than $6 million in philanthropic support. Among the supporters has been the Leppien family.

“Stephanie, Jeff, Cleo and I are excited to see the progress on the Opera House rebirth,” says John Leppien, president of Garr Tool. “Every day from here forward gets us closer to realizing the dream of so many; a cornerstone of our downtown will experience life again. Alma College students will be living and connecting downtown. New storefront spaces will be occupied. Great things are happening in our community, and we are proud to be a part of the rebuilding effort.”

The building is being renovated to meet the historic requirements of the National Park Service. Local investment also is a priority; while Granger Construction of Lansing is managing the project, more than 50 percent of the work will be completed by local contractors.

“The extraordinary vision and generosity of individual, corporate and foundation donors enabled the return of this historic gem to the Alma community,” says Matt vandenBerg, vice president for advancement and external relations. “We are immensely grateful for and humbled by their partnership, which reflects the groundswell of enthusiasm for this uniquely special project.”

Artist's rendering of the renovated ballroom. Artist's rendering of the renovated ballroom.The ground floor will feature seven bays. One of the bays will serve as the building’s main entrance with an elevator, stairway and public restrooms. Two of the bays are under a letter-of-intent for a lease while four additional bays are available for interested tenants. Prospective lessees may contact the office of Alan Gatlin, chief operating officer at Alma College, (989) 463-7143, for more information.

The renovated building will include full fire suppression along with added noise suppression. With completion planned by mid-August, upper-level Alma College students will move into their residential apartments at the beginning of the fall term.

The Opera House was originally constructed in 1879 by lumber baron Ammi Wright. A major fire and subsequent flooding with water from firefighter hoses gutted the interior of the Opera House in 2010. Previous plans to redevelop the Opera House after the fire did not materialize, and ownership transferred to Alma College in December 2017.

Story published on March 25, 2019