The show will go on at Alpena's Thunder Bay TheatreRenovations move forward after December fire

Just a few months after long-planned renovations began at the Thunder Bay Theatre in Alpena, a devastating calamity struck again: Fire.

In early December, fire destroyed a 7,000-square-foot warehouse attached to the back of the theater. The warehouse had been used to store props, set creations and served as the backstage area. 

A side view of the damage caused by the fire on Dec. 3.That section was a total loss, but Alpena firefighters managed -- once again -- to save the original building. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
The fire marked the second to damage the entertainment venue in three years.  Thunder Bay was shut down in the summer of 2020, after a fire in a neighboring business caused extensive smoke and water damage.

The renovation price tag -- before the recent fire -- was $1.4 million. Renovations have been delayed but theater officials vow “the show will go on.”

“We are committed to finishing the renovation as planned and reopening Thunder Bay Theater,” says Anne Gentry, who is president of the theater board. “It is too important for the community to end our efforts here. We are working through the insurance claim right now and waiting to hear back from our contractor on the cost for clean-up and to rebuild that part of the building.”

Thunder Bay Theatre is the only year-round professional theater in northeastern Michigan, showcasing a variety of musicals, comedies, dramas, classics and children’s theater.

What’s happening: The renovation of the historic theater in downtown Alpena has been delayed because of the fire, but plans will go forward. The renovation began in September on the historic part of the building, which houses the auditorium, apartments and lobby. The start of the renovation followed a successful fundraising campaign. A part of the recently destroyed addition will have to be rebuilt as well.
“We know we will need to rebuild part of that building so that there is a backstage and area to create sets in the future, but it will all depend on cost, what we can fundraise, and what we will get from insurance,” Gentry says “We are not sure how this will affect our timeline of renovation and reopening, but it will certainly delay our plans from our original timeline of reopening later this year.”

The addition housed props, set creations and served as the backstage area. Renovation plans: The building requires extensive renovation and restoration. The renovation will include repair and reconstruction of damaged areas, updates to six upstairs apartments, rebuilding the lobby, installing a new roof, remediating lead and asbestos, updating heating, cooling, electric and plumbing systems, and tuck-pointing brick on all facades.  Additionally, the original wooden floors will be refinished, plaster repaired, and the historic brick walls will be cleaned, helping maintain some of the theater’s unique historic features.

“The only modern additions will be adding a wet bar to the lobby and the purchase of new furniture for the lobby and apartments,” Gentry has said.

History: The Thunder Bay Theatre company was founded in 1967 but the history of its building goes back to 1904 when it was first built by E.C. Spens as part of the “New Spens Block,” according to this audio walking tour from the Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library. 

Funding: The majority of the funding for the $1.4 million project was secured through state and local grants, including the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michigan Arts and Culture Council, State Historic Preservation Office, First Federal Legacy Foundation, and the Besser Foundation. Additional funding will be required to update the stage, lighting grid, and the auditorium.

Education will continue: Following the theater’s reopening, there will be a revival of some of Thunder Bay’s outreach programs, including dance and vocal academies, touring performances, summer camps, and student performances. Part of the theater’s mission is to explore, educate, and discuss topics of diversity and inclusion. Summer camps, workshops and virtual performances have been held since the 2020 fire. 

Says Gentry: “2023 was a rollercoaster … the excitement of starting a significant renovation … followed by the fire. We are committed, however, to bringing back Thunder Bay Theater despite these setbacks. The outpouring of support from the community has been amazing, and that’s what keeps us going.”

Donations are being accepted. Go to Thunder Bay Theatre.
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