FARGO — The curtain may be closing for the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre in Fargo’s Island Park.
According to representatives on both sides, the FMCT would lease out Heritage Hall, which is currently used for exhibits. The move would give Moorhead another tenant in the Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., and give FMCT a new home with benefits.
“I’d heard FMCT was looking for a new home and I thought this would be unique space,” Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson says.
“What an amazing idea. It’s so iconic,” says Judy Lewis, executive director of the FMCT. “It’s so exciting.”
Lewis says the call came on Valentine’s Day, less than a week after Carlson was sworn in as mayor. Heritage Hall would be set up with a stage at either end of the room — a bigger one for FMCT productions, and a smaller stage on the opposite end for smaller community shows, like intimate concerts, plays or readings.
The need for a new space was prompted by a structural fault in the FMCT’s roof, found in December 2019, that prompted an evacuation of the Island Park facility. FMCT leaders planned to use the repair time for a larger renovation, including possibly expanding the theater’s footprint into the park, but a drawn-out fight with its insurance company over a settlement has left any developments stalled.
Lewis says she’s waiting on a final ruling from the insurer to come at the end of April, after which she will approach donors to see what their final budget will be and decide which facility will be the focus. The FMCT board of directors already voted in favor of moving to the Hjemkomst.
If the judgment is substantial, Lewis said FMCT would seek potential donations to renovate and make the Island Park space home for main productions and use Heritage Hall in Moorhead as a black box — or experimental — theater, as well as for kids’ and educational performances.
“That is just a giant win for all of Fargo-Moorhead,” Lewis says.
If a smaller judgment is awarded, FMCT would move its main shows to the Hjemkomst. She plans to walk through the space on Tuesday, April 20, with electricians to make sure Heritage Hall could provide the power needed for productions.
Lewis says it will take $7.5 million just to get the Island Park venue a certificate of occupancy, and a larger renovation would cost $13 million. Plans to expand the building’s existing footprint into the park have been abandoned, but if FMCT stays at its current site, it would be required to pave a roadway around the building to provide access for emergency vehicles.
FMCT’s arrangement would be similar to the Historic and Cultural Society of Clay County, which is also housed in the Hjemkomst Center. FMCT would sign a lease, pay rent and cover expenses to make Heritage Hall a suitable theater space.
Heritage Hall, which is about 7,130 square feet, would hold about 300 seats with the potential to reconfigure to about 400. The smaller community stage would have seating for about 100. The current FMCT space in Island Park seats about 340.
Lewis says the Hjemkomst parking lot can hold 189 vehicles, more than double what is currently available across Fourth Street South from the Island park theater, where patrons park in the Dike East parking lot owned by Fargo Park District.
Lewis says no matter where its main stage is, the company won’t totally leave Fargo.
“We’ll always be in Fargo,” she says. “This is just a chance to really stress the community part of the theater. I don’t think we should ever leave that space. With the money we get, we’ll make something beautiful the public will love in that space.”
FMCT had planned a “Raise the Roof” capital campaign, with a goal of $12 million, but as an insurance settlement dragged on, the project never got off the ground, partially by design.
“None of that happened the way that should have happened,” Lewis says. “We told donors to sit tight.”
Moorhead City Manager Dan Mahli says a possible FMCT presence in the Hjemkomst Center fits perfectly into Moorhead’s master plan.
“That’s what a community center really is,” he says.
FMCT’s 2021-22 season will be announced within the next month, and Lewis expects performances will be held at the Hjemkomst.
“Coming out of COVID-19, people are desperate to seek experiences,” she says, citing the success of Mary’s Tunnel, a long arc of lights in Viking Ship Park that attracted many visitors to the grounds of the Hjemkomst earlier this year who then posted selfies with friends and families on social media.
“Having FMCT would create an experience here people would come to Moorhead for,” Carlson says. “I hope this will ignite more restaurants like Rustica to come to the downtown area. I see it bringing in a ton of people to Moorhead. We’re going to be the epicenter for the arts.”