The millions of dollars now being spent on Northern Stage’s new theater downtown are boosting the local economy in the short term, and the increased visibility that the new street-level venue will offer will help sustain the revitalized area for decades to come, according to those involved in the development. “It has been my experience before that when the arts aspire to improve, it stimulates private developers on what they can do in the same area,” said Eric Bunge, Northern Stage’s managing director.
Bunge is overseeing the construction of the professional theater company’s $7.5 million theater on the Gates Street property that once was home to a Cadillac dealership founded by the late Bill Miller’s father in 1902. “It is a brand-new building from the ground up,” he said. The project is on budget and on schedule to open in August, he said, and the company, which now calls the Briggs Opera House home, is closing in on its $9 million fundraising goal, with $7.9 million raised so far.
Construction is bringing direct and indirect economic benefits to the area, with many of the project’s subcontractors and suppliers from within a 40-mile radius of White River Junction, he said. That means much of the money spent to build the theater is spent locally. And it’s not just those initial dollars that boost the local economy — it’s how those same dollars are turned over several times.
“The ($6 million to $7 million) is going first and foremost to the suppliers and subcontractors. But the ripple effect is that those same dollars float through the local economy with the purchase of goods and services,” Bunge said. With businesses in the area selling everything from furniture and clothing to cars and groceries, the money can circulate through the local economy up to seven times, he estimates.
Bunge previously worked in Lanesboro, Minn., population 750, where he founded a small theater company that helped turn the area into an arts and cultural destination, attracted thousands of visitors a year, and resulted in Lanesboro being named one of the country’s top small towns for the arts. Bunge envisions the same possibilities for White River Junction. “We saw a surge in private development as people began to see what was possible,” he said.
And “seeing” is key.
Even though Northern Stage productions attract 25,000 to 30,000 people a year, Bunge said, many others who are not patrons of the theater — but perhaps could be — tend to drive by the company’s existing entrance in the Briggs Opera House unaware of its presence.
“It lacks the manifestation of foot traffic,” he said.
The new theater, however, will have a highly visible, street-level presence and will add to the foot traffic downtown, which in turn can stimulate other development, including new dining, cultural and shopping opportunities.
Developer Matt Bucy agrees that visibility is an important factor. “It helps to have that openness when revitalizing an area,” Bucy said, noting that the Tip Top Cafe has large glass windows, as will the ground floor of the American Legion Building when it is complete.
“It can create interaction with people on the street and give the sense that something is happening inside.”