The stairs up to the third floor performance space in the Delphi Opera House creak and bend as construction crews walk up and down them. A curving stairwell to what once was balcony seating features a narrow corridor strewn with dust and peeling paint. It’s not hard to see the building needs more than four million dollars in improvements. But on Wednesday, community leaders announced they’d received another $200,000 chunk of that.
“Today, with the help of the advisory board, we’ve moved from the planning and drawing board stage to the hard hat and sledgehammer stage," says Delphi Preservation Society President Greg Norman, who emceed the event. It was keynoted by the news that the Janesville, Wisconsin-based Jeffris Family Foundation is following through on an agreement made two years ago. If the community raised $400,000 for the repairs, the foundation would offer $200,000 in matching funds.
Money was never far from the conversation – or the lack of it from view. Delphi’s courthouse square bears a resemblance to those in places such as Greencastle and Martinsville – a few businesses appear to be thriving, but there are just as many empty and dilapidated storefronts. In short, the area needs an anchor.
Delphi Mayor Randy Strasser spoke glowingly of his town’s annual bacon festival, but he says it can’t be the only event that brings people through the doors of the businesses trying to survive on the square.
“The neat things that happened out of that was to hear these business owners that actually had sales that day and new opportunities for their business," Strasser says. "So that’s what this is all about is creating that excitement and that revitalization in the downtown area.”
Delphi Opera House Incorporated founder Shelley Lowenburg-DeBoer expounded on that theme.
“What kind of event would you like to host? How about an anniversary dinner, a graduation party, maybe a wedding reception," she asked the crowd. "Those are just some of the programs, just the very beginnings of ideas for programs and events that will be possible on this Delphi Opera House stage. And I just want to let you know that for over a year now, I personally – and I’m sure other people have too – have been getting e-mails and phone calls from performers wanting to get on this stage.”
But first, the many small jobs that make up the construction need to be finished.
Behind the opera house, an excavator operator is picking up the wooden shards of a building that used to stand behind the opera house and placing them in a dumpster. It’s here that the new addition will eventually stand. But, again, that requires money. And the project, despite a Stellar Communities grant from the state and despite the announcement of Wednesday’s cash influx, is still more than $1.1 million shy of the greenbacks needed to open the renovated space on time late next year.
Still, that hasn’t stopped locals from imagining what might be. And, Greg Norman says, it didn’t stop Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley – a frequent Delphi visitor in his day – from issuing a reminder to those who came after him.
“He wrote numerous poems while he was up here and in one of them he wrote ‘To dream the old dream over is a luxury divine.’ And we’re going to borrow that line as a theme for the restoration of this building and the construction of the three-story addition that will be behind. We’re going to be able to dream those old dreams of performances in Delphi again.”