New $500K Johnson Hall gift prompts fundraising challenge for Gardiner theater

A rainy view of Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center on Water Street in downtown Gardiner on July 9. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

GARDINER — With less than three months to go before construction is slated to start, the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center has received a $500,000 gift from an anonymous donor and is announcing a match challenge to double that amount.

The result of the Punch List Challenge will be to raise $1 million help reach the fundraising goal for the long-awaited project to renovate and reopen the 400-seat upper theater at Gardiner’s historic opera house.

“We now know that we are going to construction in April,” Michael Miclon, executive artistic director of Johnson Hall, said Wednesday. “Because of the historic preservation tax credits, this project needs to be completed by June of 2023. We want to be clear that we are going to be fundraising throughout the construction process.”

When the capital campaign was announced in 2016, fundraising plans included selling historic preservation tax credits to fund part of the work as well as a capital campaign to raise money to pay for the project. At the outset, the goal was $4.3 million.

An artist’s rendering shows renovations planned for Johnson Hall in Gardiner. Rendering courtesy of Archetype Architects

Although inflation caused that amount to be revised during the fundraising campaign to about $5.5 million, the global COVID-19 pandemic has created supply chain problems and labor shortages that have boosted costs for construction projects, including Johnson Hall’s.

It’s not yet clear what the final price tag will be, as earlier cost estimates are being revised not only for building construction but also for the sound and lighting equipment and other items needed to complete the theater.

The challenge’s name references the list of final projects that need to be completed to wrap up any construction project and recognition by the donor that the gift would help bridge the budget gap created by the price hikes.

“We are obviously so grateful,” Miclon said.

While fundraising is likely to continue after construction starts in early April, delaying the start of the project is not an option. Because the project is being funded in part by the sale of historic preservation tax credits, that imposes a deadline on the project.

Miclon said right now, he expects construction to be completed and the theater to be open by June 2023.

Miclon said the donors were inspired by the $250,000 challenge gift from Peter and Sandra Prescott and Team EJP announced last summer and saw how successful that was and made a gift to help Johnson Hall reach its fundraising goal.

“This comes at a perfect time because of all the increases we’ve seen,” Miclon said. “It keeps us on track.”

In the years leading up to the start of fundraising, Miclon had been working to attract people to Water Street theater by increasing the number of shows offered in the lower theater space that can accommodate up to 125 seats, and by hosting a series of free summer concerts at Gardiner’s Waterfront Park.

“The restoration of Johnson Hall is a game changer for Gardiner,” Gardiner Mayor Patricia Hart said Wednesday.

Since the construction date was announced, city officials are now taking into consideration the increase in downtown activity once the project is completed, Hart said.

“We are looking forward to seeing more people coming into the city for shows and events and visiting our local businesses while they are here,” she said.

At the end of 2021, city officials approved a downtown master plan that included a renovated Johnson Hall as a catalyst for economic activity and community vibrancy for the whole community.

“We’re very fortunate to have all the folks at Johnson Hall — their staff, board members, donors and supporters — stick with the planning and fundraising work for many years to bring their dream to life,” Hart said. “I can’t wait for the curtain to rise for the first performance.”

Along with this major gift, nearly $100,000 has also been donated in the last month, including $50,000 from the Davis Family Foundation, $10,000 for the Lewis J. Sheaffer Community Trust and more than $22,000 individual donations.

Miclon said under the match challenge, donations to the fundraising initiatives are already underway, including selling seats and  support of Rick’s Cafe among other things, will qualify for the match. Information on those initiatives and how to give can be found at Johnson Hall’s website,


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