SPARTA — A new task force organized by Sparta’s Downtown Development Authority is working to revitalize the historic Sparta Opera House, which has long sat vacant in the village’s downtown district.
“We’ve had so much momentum in such a short amount of time with things moving forward in downtown Sparta that the timing couldn’t be better,” Elizabeth Morse, development director of the Sparta Downtown Development Authority, told MiBiz. “This property has been virtually vacant for 80-plus years on the second floor. It’s a huge space, and the tallest building in downtown Sparta — this is a big deal.”
The opera house space, located on the second floor at 186 E. Division St., was constructed in 1914. The approximately 4,800-square-foot space could seat more than 500 people and was used for plays, community dances, film exhibitions, student productions and local boxing matches. Uses for the first floor started changing during the 1930s and formerly included a restaurant, pool hall and a private club. The second floor has since been used primarily for storage.
In December 2022, members of Sparta’s Downtown Development Authority taskforce that was formed to examine the potential of redeveloping the opera house approached the board of the North Kent Eagles, which owns the building. The North Kent Eagles operates on the first floor and plans to continue doing so, but the organization gave the DDA its blessing to pursue redeveloping the second floor, Morse said.
“Our organization has been discussing what to do with that space for many years,” Amanda Harrison, a member of the Eagles board and the DDA task force, said in a statement. “We’d love to see it become a contributing part of the Sparta community. There are just a lot of questions to be answered.”
The DDA task force will hold several focus groups over the next few months to brainstorm potential uses for the second floor that would also have community support, Morse said. The DDA also launched an online survey to gather community feedback on the project.
A similar effort in 2011 around redeveloping the space never came to fruition. However, leaders from that group conducted a feasibility study to determine how much it would cost to rehabilitate the second floor, bring it up to code and make the space usable again. The price tag at the time came in at a little more than $1 million, Morse said.
“That effort lost a lot of steam, but it is good information to have in our back pocket,” Morse said. She added that economic development organization The Right Place Inc. also is helping now with community development assistance.
“We’re hoping once we get a decent amount of feedback in the coming weeks, we can strategize if a feasibility study makes sense, and see how we could execute that, and how it would operate,” Morse said.
The online survey for the project includes questions about amenities that the Sparta area is missing, what would bring more vibrancy downtown, and what the highest and best uses would be for the building.
The redevelopment would eventually need approval from the North Kent Eagles and align with local zoning regulations, but “everything is on the table,” right now, Morse said of redevelopment options. The upper floor is still in decent shape despite sitting vacant for so long, Morse added.
“Community engagement is a must when you embark on a project like this, and we’ll be listening to all input with open ears,” said Travis Alden, senior director of community development at The Right Place and a member of the DDA taskforce. “In my experience, it’s crucial for community buy-in and also necessary for future funding requests, like grant applications.”