Belfast’s Opera House will come back to life, new owners say
Earl McKenzie, property manager for several other properties under the new owners, said they plan to bring life back to the Belfast community.
BELFAST, Maine — The Belfast Opera House Theater is under new ownership after Kendra and Alex Brigham, who live in Arizona, purchased the multi-purpose building.
The Opera House has been part of Belfast society since it was built between 1866 and 1868. The building is listed as a historic landmark and is home to several commercial and retail tenants who lease the storefront space. Some of the building is also used for apartments, but the actual theater on the second floor of the building has not been used for over 30 years due to needed renovations.
Within the past few years, the Brigham family has also purchased the building at the corner of 121 Main Street, a storefront for the real estate firm of Garrett & Cohen; A vacant building located at 126 Church Street; The building housing Edward & Jones Financial Group at 132 Church Street; Craig Olson Library at 99 Main St.; And two other properties.
The couple plans to bring life back to the Belfast community, create more affordable housing and bring the theater back to life, said Earl McKenzie, a real estate manager at several of the Brigham family properties.
The previous owners, Cara Guerrieri and her husband Frank Owen, owned the Belfast Opera House for 27 years.
“I think we just decided it was someone else’s turn in the building,” Guerrieri said.
Guerrieri said she and her husband applied for grants to private owners of historic buildings and tried everything imaginable to secure the funding they would need to renovate the theater and bring the space back to usable condition.
“We tried our hardest to get this grant and we didn’t get the grant, and other worthwhile places in Maine got some funding through this process,” Gurrieri said. “I would periodically remind some of the city officials in Belfast, ‘Hey, you should really buy our building and the city can have its own opera house,’ but the city wasn’t in a position to do that either.”
Business owners in storefronts at the Opera House said they didn’t know what to expect when they found out Gurrieri and Owen were selling the building.
“When the previous owners of the building told us they were looking to sell, my co-owner and I said, ‘Oh no,’” said Julia Clapp, who owns Left Bank Books. “What will happen to the space? What will happen to the building? Our working lives have flashed before our eyes.”
Clapp said that although she is confident that Guerrieri and her husband will put the building in good hands, she is unsure if she will be able to keep her storefront under new ownership.
Clapp said she asked herself: “What does the new ownership mean? Does this mean we won’t be able to stay here anymore?”
She said she also feared her monthly rent would rise.
Dennis Howard, owner of Opera House Video, said he had the same fear.
“We are a video rental store in 2023, and we have overcome a lot of competition and challenges,” he said. “The last few years have been the toughest for all retail companies.”
Howard said that much of the reason his company has been able to thrive in an era where DVD rentals are no longer popular can be attributed to the previous owners. Guerrieri and Owen have not increased the monthly rent significantly, despite ongoing inflation and changes in the economy, Howard said.
“Knowing that they had seen this business through two previous sets of owners before me made me feel like they really supported me,” Howard said. “To allow us to stay here so long, and also the theater two doors down that is a non-profit performing arts space with only 42 seats, I knew these owners weren’t out to just make a lot of money.”
Howard said he was a little upset when the Brigham family started buying up several properties up and down the block, all relatively close to each other or within walking distance.
“I always have a healthy skepticism and fear of too much gentrification — of rents going up, property values going up too much, pushing out Indigenous people or anyone who doesn’t have a significant amount of income,” he said.
Clapp said she believes the Belfast Opera House Theater is an essential part of the Belfast community.
“Frederick Douglass once spoke here, and it is a wonderful historical site,” she said.
The couple has no intention of changing the original historic structure of the opera house, McKenzie said.
Mackenzie is from Belfast and he and Alex Brigham are long-time family friends. McKenzie said they love Belfast and cherish its history.
“Belfast was definitely way back in the Queen’s community on Penobscot Bay and the central coast of Maine, and the opera house was a big part of that,” McKenzie said. “We are not looking to change the city; these are long-term acquisitions and we have no intention of selling.”
McKenzie also said that the Brighams’ goal was not to improve the Belfast community or to strip it of its uniqueness.
“There’s a very strong sense of community in Belfast, and we really love that, and we want to be part of that,” McKenzie said. “We put a lot of thought into everything we do so as not to disrupt that.”
McKenzie said he and the Brigham family plan to renovate the theater and reopen it for use, but he said it will be a multi-year project because the theater needs a lot of work.
According to McKenzie, the theater’s sprinkler system should be updated, the walls should be repainted with lead-free paint, and many of the theater’s accommodations should be restored among many other safety hazards that need to be corrected.
Guerrieri said she was happy to sell because the last thing she wanted was to hand the building over to a new owner who would chop up the building and divide it into apartments. The Brigham family’s love of Belfast and its history made giving up the building easier, Guerreri said.
When business owners discovered the Brigham family’s plan to preserve the opera house’s original structure and soon reopen the theater, their fears were eased.
“I think I’m very excited to claim that the Opera House will be back in operation at some point in the future,” Howard said. “I was lucky enough to be there for the last show 32 years ago, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in the summer of 1991 starring my friend. And then, the doors closed.”
“It would be great” to see the theater return, Clapp said.
According to Howard, Belfast residents and even tourists agree.
“Almost every day in the summer, we hear from people in this store, and from far-away tourists who have discovered the city, asking ‘What’s the deal with the opera house upstairs?’” Wouldn’t it be great if that could be used for something?” Howard said. “And I think for the first time in a long time, we’re all confident that it will happen again.”