FMCT director says it’s time to 'move on’ as Island Park theater will be torn down
Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre's building will be leveled later this year, following a proposed redesign for Island Park, but Judy Lewis says the company plans to stay in Fargo once a new space can be found.
FARGO — Fargo Moorhead Community Theatre's executive director says after 55 years in Island Park, their building will be torn down.
With early plans released this week for a reimagined Island Park that propose different features where FMCT now stands Lewis said the structurally unsound building will face demolition sometime after mid-June, with plans in the works for a different theater space in Fargo.
“We definitely have supporters in Fargo. We are going to stay in Fargo. We've been approached by a couple of different people to make something happen that I’m not able to talk about yet, but there's a great plan for FMCT in Fargo so we're going to stay here,” Lewis said.
Lewis said FMCT will also keep its presence at Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center, a space they utilized this winter and have leased through March 2024.
“We’re always going to be at the Hjemkomst as long as they will have us there. It is a perfect black box theater. It is a perfect educational facility, and the people of Moorhead have been remarkable,” Lewis said.
But making plans for the future doesn't make losing the past any easier.
The relationship between Island Park and theater began in 1967 when the Fargo Park District let the troupe build a structure on park land.
“I felt like when the people back in 1967 gave that space to FMCT, they meant that forever,” Lewis said.
Vicki Dawson, Fargo Park Board's president, said, "We expect FMCT to be a part of Island Park going forward. We just don't know in what capacity. What is the best thing for the park for the next 100 years?"
Dave Leker, executive director of Fargo Parks, said he knows people in Fargo want FMCT to have a presence in downtown Fargo.
"This master plan is just the beginning," he said. "Everyone has a right to tell us what they want to do with the park. These are just some concepts."
"We are on Step 1, not Step 74," Dawson added.
Several ideas were discussed between the park district and FMCT about FMCT's role in the park whether the original building could be saved or not.
One suggestion included having FMCT involved in managing an outdoor amphitheater space. Dawson said the thought behind that was that FMCT was already utilizing indoor space in Moorhead at the Hjemkomst Center and some educational space in West Fargo, so a potential amphitheater in Island Park would provide an outdoor presence for FMCT. But Dawson adds, it was just one idea.
But Lewis didn't feel an amphitheater supported FMCT's mission.
"I expressed that my board would not be interested in overseeing something. We want to fulfill our mission. We're a 75-year-old institution. We don't need to partner with anyone. We're doing amazing things in the community. And we're going to continue to do amazing things in the community for the community. And so that one was just kind of left ambiguous," Lewis said.
Lewis said she would love to save their Katherine Kilbourne Burgum Pavilion, since it was the first gift made on behalf of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum’s mother following her death in 2005. She suggested its use as an art gallery. There is an art gallery in the proposed plans that could potentially use that structure depending upon a number of factors including cost and potential usage.
‘We've tried every single thing’
It’s been a tough couple of years for the theater after a structural crack was noticed in the roof during the run of a play in December 2019. The building was deemed unsafe.
FMCT board members have been committed to doing everything they could to make it right and keep a building in Island Park.
But Lewis said she feels like the goalposts keep changing.
“We battled with the insurance, we battled with the railroad, then the park district said we had to build this giant road that would go around the outside of the theater in case there was a fire. And I feel like that was the straw that kind of broke the board's back,” Lewis said.
(The access road was a requirement of the City of Fargo Fire Department, based upon new building codes to allow access to the rear of the building in case of fire. )
This access road was a requirement of the City of Fargo Fire Depart, based on a code review, of a new or
expanded building. This road provided access for the Fire Department to the rear of the building in case of fire.
Lewis said it would cost $8 million just to make the building safe and $13 million to make any significant improvements.
“All of this was pre-pandemic prices, and that is without a parking lot. I just felt it was an irresponsible use of people’s gift,” she said.
Lewis said she believes there were some "missed opportunities" for fundraising by not choosing to work with award-winning landscape architect Tom Oslund, one of the people behind the Minneapolis Sculpture Gardens.
'Leave it on the stage'
Lewis said before the theater building is torn down, they want to have a proper sendoff at their annual meeting on June 13 — a chance for people to ask questions and talk about their memories of the space.
“We're going to ask people to write a letter, write a memory and just go walk into the safe side of the building and leave it there,” she says.
As the building is torn down, the memories will be rolled over into the dirt and buried into Island Park, the land they called home for 55 years.
“A woman came in and donated her husband's Korean War uniforms last week, and she said, ‘My husband was one of the original plumbers who donated his time here,’” Lewis recalled. “That just makes me want to cry, because I think all of the people who just love art, who gave of themselves, gave up their time, gave up their resources, put their hearts into building that space, so it’s been incredible.”
Dawson and Leker suggest people go to FargoParks.com and take part in a survey to voice their opinions on what they'd like to see in the park, including any role FMCT would play.