AUSTIN — Bit by bit, Austin's Historic Paramount will become a 21st Century building.

Starting in September, Austin Area Arts, which runs its programs out of the 1929-era theater, plans to replace the 33-year-old roof on the Paramount and add a new fire-suppression sprinkler system to the building.

The theater will be dark during the $875,000 construction project, scheduled for September through November. Part of the funding of the project is provided by donors who have been growing a Capital Projects Fund for the Paramount Theatre for many years.

While the roof replacement should be fairly straightforward, the work on the sprinkler system will be tricky because of the domed shape of the ceiling in the theater and how it uses lighting effects to show clouds or pinholes in the ceiling to simulate stars.

Laura Helle, executive director of Austin Area Arts, said the project is being made possible by a grant from The Hormel Foundation, which is covering about 80% of the cost, while AAA's capital reserve fund is paying for the remainder.

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Laura Helle
Laura Helle

Now, Helle said, is the right time to get the work done, which is why Austin Area Arts approached The Hormel Foundation for a grant to get the roof and sprinkler system done. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Paramount can only admit up to 25% of its seating capacity for any event, which means about 150 people. And that's just not enough to make financial sense in putting on performances.

For example, the theater normally puts on shows in the fall with the Minnesota Musicians Coalition and Caravan du Norde, but after a spring and summer of no live performances due to the pandemic, it was time to start some construction projects, she said.

"Part of our thought was we should do this when we'd be, at best, at reduced capacity," Helle said. "We very much want to be reopened by Dec. 1. December is our biggest month. We'd love to be able to do December programming if COVID allows."

While the theater has not been able to host in-person performances since the COVID-19 lockdown, AAA put on a series of Facebook Live solo concerts in April and May where musicians performed solo on the Paramount stage and the performance was webcast via the social media platform.

To keep the arts nonprofit organization going, Helle said they applied for and received a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan through the federal Small Business Administration, accepted an emergency grant from The Hormel Foundation, and are applying for CARES Act funds through Mower County.

With luck, she said, the renovated Paramount will host the Saint Andrews Sisters in December, which is the only act that is currently signed.

"A lot of other partners we normally work with, such as the Matchbox Children's Theatre, their plans are up in the air," she said. "There are a lot of performers who aren't sure if they're ready to come back."

After the current renovation project, Helle said the next step in their building remodel plan is to focus on Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues. Concerns within the building include the pitch of the auditorium floor, which is too steep, no elevator to the balcony, no ADA accessibility to the stage, and accessibility to the bathrooms.

"Unfortunately, those ADA fixes add up quickly," Helle said. "If we start fixing one of those issues, they want us to fix all of them. We're looking to pull together funding that would also include expanding the lobby."

Right now, the next phase after the remodel this fall might take another three or four years to complete, but Helle said she wants to tackle those ADA issues as soon as possible.

"We'll be pushing to make it go as fast as we can," she said.