Sterling Opera House

Sterling Opera House

The city of Derby has released the Sterling Opera House Feasibility Study, and you have full access to it here on the web. You can read through the Executive Summary on this page as a starter. For a fuller version in Adobe Acrobat format, click here. Keep in mind that it is a very large file, and you will need Acrobat Reader installed on your computer.

Click here to read about the first phase of the restoration work.

Click here to read about the 2006 roof replacement.


Study Objectives

The Sterling Opera House, located in downtown Derby, Connecticut, is one of the most valuable “sleeping” cultural assets in the Greater Naugatuck River Valley and all of Western Connecticut.  The historic building was constructed in 1889 and has the distinction of being Connecticut’s first designated Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Having played host to stars of the stage and screen, as well as celebrated musicians and athletes, the theater has been “dark” since 1945 yet remains essentially sound and in its original configuration.  The City of Derby, as well as other regional partners, recognize the facility’s potential value in stimulating economic revitalization and providing a center for the arts, learning, and gathering for the entire region. 

The first step toward the realization of such an objective is the preparation of a feasibility and marketing analysis evaluating the project’s viability on a number of levels. The basic objectives of this study include the following:

         Test the project’s economic viability and potential in contributing to Derby’s revitalization as well as stimulating further economic expansion in the entire Naugatuck Valley Region including the communities of Ansonia, Beacon Falls, Oxford, Seymour, and Shelton.

         Establishing the basis for collaboration between the City of Derby and other regional partners in the restoration and renovation of the facility.

         Conducting a marketing study to determine the potential demand for various uses of a restored Sterling Opera House. 

         Assess the current architectural and structural condition of the facility including code and “life-safety” deficiencies and other issues pertinent to the facility’s revitalization.

         Determine the “highest and best” appropriate use for the facility.

         Prepare a preliminary schematic design for the structure’s renovation and restoration predicated on its value as an historic resource while accommodating its “highest and best use” as identified in the needs assessment and market analysis.

         Develop an “order-of-magnitude” estimate of the renovation and restoration costs for the project based upon the identified “highest and best use” for the resource, including all “hard and soft” costs for the project’s implementation.

         Evaluate various “long-term” management options for the facility’s on-going operation.

         Prepare a preliminary business plan and management options for the facility’s operation.

Overview of Findings

The market for the arts in the Valley is very positive. The resident community represents a mix of occupations, higher levels of educational attainment, and high household income levels.  These factors normally suggest high levels of participation in the performing arts and entertainment.  Using the PRIZM model developed by Claritas, 79% of the resident population can be characterized as “more likely than average” to attend arts events. Through interviews and the distribution of surveys to organizations and presenters, we measured demand for these facilities in the area on the part of regional professional arts organizations, schools, presenters and promoters, and other community-based organizations. The Planning Team found several potential uses and users for a renovated Sterling Opera House.  Above all, local and regional arts organizations have expressed interest in using the facility for dramatic productions, lectures, meetings and musical entertainment.  Other uses include arts instruction, historic interpretation, media training, social gatherings and special events / fundraisers. If restored and reopened, the Sterling Opera House could be one of the catalysts to Derby’s downtown revitalization, which would result in “quality of life” improvements such as educational opportunities, community development and economic revitalization.  Over time, the building’s programs could become a destination for the Valley’s tourist market. The facility would be a true community arts center; accessible to the general public, serving local and regional programming, and drawing resident and regional audiences.

A stage the size of the one in the Sterling Opera House is most suitable for performances of drama, musical theatre, small music ensembles, bands, recitals, small orchestras, and small dance ensembles or solo pieces.  Lectures, public meetings, and film screenings are also appropriate uses for the space. The small square performance area, approximately 30' x 30', is not suitable for opera or ballet, which require a minimum performance area of 48' x 48' to achieve the staging demanded by those arts forms.  Modern and folk dance groups often have more flexible requirements, and may be successfully accommodated at the Sterling Opera House. This building is not large enough to accommodate symphony orchestras or traveling Broadway shows.  Modern concert halls do not have prosceniums and have very low stages in order to place the musician and the listener in the same volume. Large orchestras require an enormous amount of square footage and a large cubic volume for the music to resonate within.  An even greater area and volume is needed for symphonies with a chorus.  Smaller orchestras, chamber groups and solo recitals, however, would be very successful venues at the Sterling Opera House.  The Hall is acknowledged for its superb acoustical characteristics.

A preliminary scenario indicates a potential use of the theatre by over fifteen different groups totaling 153 performances per year.  With 63 “event days” and 56 “prep days”, the theatre would be in use a total of 119 days per year.  “Sterling Hall”, a multi-purpose room supplementing the theatre, would account for an additional 108 days of use.  Total attendance would approximate 34,878 patrons.

Based upon the space program developed through the Needs Assessment and Market Analysis, (as well as an assessment of the building’s historic configuration), a preliminary schematic design for requisite building modifications has been prepared to accommodate the Sterling Opera House’s program of activities.  The schematic design is respectful of the historic Theatre’s position as one of Connecticut’s cultural assets and is predicated on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standard’s for Rehabilitation and Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings.  The schematic design also addresses the requisite modifications to fully comply with all current life-safety and accessibility requirements. 

Based on the project as it is currently conceived and delineated in the architectural recommendations, an “order of magnitude” estimate of hard construction costs total approximately $6.1 million.  (This equates to approximately $181 / square foot.)  Other capital costs including theatrical equipment as well as furniture and fixtures total approximately $1.1 million.  Other miscellaneous expenses including administrative costs, design and consultant fees and legal expenses total to approximately $1.9 million.  Consequently, the gross estimate for project implementation approximates $9.2 million.   

A pro-forma operating budget for a base year of operations for the re-activated Sterling Opera House has been developed. The key step in developing the pro-forma has been estimating activity in the theater and adjacent spaces.  While the resulting program of events is not an exact forecast of activity, it does provide a basis for projecting earned revenues and expenses.  The pro-forma should be considered as a “live” model, one that can be adjusted based on changing circumstances and assumptions.  It is fundamentally a tool to help the City of Derby, the Valley Arts Council and “Save Our Sterling”  (SOS) to prepare for the operation of the renovated facility.

Funding the renovation and restoration of the opera house is a significant challenge.  The Planning Team believes that it is important to seek funding from multiple sources, to develop an endowment to support operations of the Sterling, and to position the project to compete successfully for funding without threatening other organizations’ current fundraising efforts.  With anticipated operating revenues of $94,000 and operating expenses of $294,000, the Sterling covers 32% of operating costs with earned revenues, leaving an annual funding requirement of approximately $201,000. 

Key sources of funds will mostly be a combination including the State, the City of Derby (funding and/or services), corporations, foundations and individuals.  As seen in a few enterprising communities, a tax levy on services, an assessment on sales, or another form of public funding may also provide a steady revenue stream to support the Sterling’s operation. Funding must support both the construction and operation of new facilities: if the project cost is $9.2 million, we would recommend a funding plan that seeks $10.7 million from the public sector and private sector, with that additional $1.5 million to create an endowment.

We would stress the importance of professional advice in the investigation of the funding potential of the project, and the scaling and/or phasing of the project based on the results of that analysis. First and foremost, what our study has done is to identify and describe what we think is the right project for the community. This is now a tool for fundraising experts to use in their analysis.

For the next steps, the Planning Team would stress the importance of determining the level of support likely to come from the public, and then investigating the potential to raise the balance of required funds from the private sector. We would also emphasize the importance of integrating this project into overall plans for downtown Derby, and the continuing effort to forge operating partnerships. For the Sterling to regain its status as a community asset, it is critical that the arts council and SOS work with users of the Sterling on institutional preparation issues and audience development goals. This study represents several small steps towards the development of the Sterling as a regional cultural center.

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