(SPARTA, MI) – After decades of sitting empty and vacant, there is a new spark of energy for revitalizing a critical, high-potential-impact space in Sparta’s historic downtown district. Sparta’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) has launched an initiative to explore the possibilities, potential, and viability of activating the space widely known as the former Sparta Opera House.
“Activating vacant space is a critical strategy for continued downtown revitalization,” says Liz Morse, Sparta’s DDA Director. “While this space doesn’t actively detract from a commercial district like a vacant storefront does, just think what ‘could be’ if it were activated!”
Located above the North Kent Eagles at 186 East Division Street, the historic opera house space was completed in 1914 and originally could seat over 500 people. For a number of years, the space was successfully utilized for live plays, community dances and even film exhibition. Sparta student productions were held there regularly, as well as major local boxing matches that would draw participants from as far away as Grand Rapids and Muskegon.
However, during the 1930’s, as the uses of the first floor changed from restaurant to pool hall to private club, the opera house space became used primarily for storage. It has essentially sat unused since the 1940’s.
“What’s great though is that the Eagles club has taken great care of the building,” says Doc Freeland, a member of the DDA task force exploring what could be done with the space. “While unused, the upper levels are in good shape. That is a really good situation for the potential revitalization.”
In December, members of the DDA task force approached the Board of the North Kent Eagles and requested the group’s “blessing” to begin formally exploring possibilities for the former opera house space, including soliciting input from the greater Sparta community.
“Our organization has been discussing what to do with that space for many years,” says Amanda Harrison, a member of the Eagles Board as well as the DDA task force. “We’d love to see it become a contributing part of the Sparta community; there are just a lot of questions to be answered.”
The task force intends to begin asking those questions via an intentional community engagement process over the next few weeks. This will include an online survey asking open-ended questions such as “what amenities is the Sparta community currently missing?” as well as a series of targeted focus group discussions with the intent of engaging a wide swath of Sparta’s stakeholders, ranging from local business owners to the educational sector and more.
“Community engagement is a must when you embark on a project like this, and we’ll be listening to all input with open ears,” says Travis Alden, Senior Director of Community Development at The Right Place, and a member of the task force. “In my experience, it’s crucial for community buy-in and also necessary for future funding requests, like grant applications.”
The task force is going into the listening process without any preconceived notions about what the final results will be.
“We aren’t approaching this as an effort to restore the historic opera house,” says Morse. “We’re looking for what the highest and best use of that space could be, and what potential use(s) would be the most feasible for the property and for Sparta. The fundamental goal is for the property to become vibrant and add to the Sparta community.”
Some preliminary examination work was done in 2011, putting a price tag on repairs and rehabilitation at approximately one million dollars. However, that did not address things like an operational model, programming, business plan, and the like.
“That needs to be a part of the eventual look at the feasibility of whatever project(s) are proposed for this site,” adds Alden. “We don’t have any of those answers now – that will come after a lot of community listening, looking at the results of that and likely conducting a comprehensive feasibility study not just on the building itself, but also on the potential operational models and uses.”
While the thought of undertaking a project to reactivate the space is exciting to many local folks, it is likely to take a year or more to arrive at the point of answering the myriad of questions and determining what is actually feasible.
“We’ll need to have patience as we work through this process, but the possibilities sure are exciting,” says Greg Peak, also a member of the task force. “I’d love to start swinging hammers tomorrow, but we know we’ll have one chance to really do this right. And, that will start with members of the Sparta community providing their ideas and opinions over the next few weeks.”
Anyone interested in providing their input into the process or learning more about the initiative should contact the Sparta Chamber of Commerce / DDA and follow them on social media for more information and updates.