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Giving Back:Elgin Opera House

Kem Brainerd, a cyclist herself who served as the hospitality coordinator for our recent visit to Elgin, recalls when she first described to the townspeople what they could expect from Cycle Oregon when it visited in 2008. “I told them we’d be hosting all these nice cyclists, and not to try to be something they weren’t – Cycle Oregon wants us to just be ourselves. And besides, it was just a one-time thing – we wouldn’t be seeing them again for a long time, if ever.”

Well, imagine her surprise when we came back two years later – to the delight of “90 percent of the people here (who) embraced Cycle Oregon and welcomed them back.” Because after both visits the Cycle Oregon Fund gave grants to a project of huge importance to Elgin: the restoration of the legendary local opera house.

The Elgin Opera House, built in 1912, had (to use a cliché) fallen into disrepair when the town took on the ambitious project of restoring it in time for its 100th anniversary. The project was estimated to cost a whopping $1 million – a big amount for a tiny town (population: 1,650).

But, as is often the case, one building meant a lot to that town. So a determined restoration committee, of which Kem is a member, started writing grant proposals, corralling local resources and getting to work.

The group landed six-figure help from private foundations and an energy grant, which kick-started the project. But the task list was daunting: replace stairways for both entrances, a new roof, restored exterior brickwork, rewired electrical system, insulation upgrades, stage repairs, repainting inside and out…

And today they’re ahead of schedule and under budget. Pleasant surprises like finding that half the electrical work had (unknown to them) been done previously, and getting more in-kind donations has reduced the cost estimate to $750,000. And if all goes well down the final stretch, the project may be complete by the end of summer – six months ahead of the anticipated completion.

And while big-ticket grants get projects like this started, it’s monetary infusions like the Cycle Oregon grants that keep it going. The latest CO grant paid for a complete restoration of the crumbling steps of the side entrance.

“Cycle Oregon’s grants – they are more than appreciated,” Kem says. “We can’t say ‘thank you’ enough for what Cycle Oregon has brought to our town and this project.”

And the project is having an impact. Extensive press coverage has brought attention to both the opera house and the town that boasts it.

“The opera house has a sense of historic meaning for people here,” Kem explains. “It’s not only the increased revenue that performances bring in; everyone driving through town sees this beautiful, imposing building and wants to find out more. And for the locals, this is a logging and farming community; to have the arts here is big. The high school and elementary school are doing cultural projects in acting and music, creating an arts center.”

We recently heard back from a local who said the best thing about Cycle Oregon coming to town is that when we leave, there’s no sign that we were ever there. He was talking about cleaning up after ourselves, but everyone involved with CO can be proud of the fact that there we DO leave some signs that we’ve been to town. Just ask Elgin.

(Elgin Opera house photos by Trish Yerges/The Observer)

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