ST. GEORGE — Cheers and applause broke out for the St. George Musical Theater, not for the nonprofit theater group’s latest production, but for a deal made with the city of St. George for a permanent home in the downtown area.
“This is a day of celebration,” Bruce R. Bennett, the president and arts director for the St. George Musical Theater, told St. George News. His words came on the heels of the City Council approving a 40-year lease agreement with the nonprofit Thursday night for property on Main Street south of the old Kmart shopping center.
Long-time St. George residents may recognize the property as originally being a part of the lumber yard for the Anderson Lumber Company.
SGMT has operated out of the St. George Opera House since 2014. Prior to that, the theater group had been on a five-year hiatus due to various factors including the lack of a proper venue. The building the nonprofit used before then was among those demolished by the city to make way for the construction at Town Square Park.
While being able to use the St. George Opera House breathed new life into SGMT, the group continued to seek a more permanent location and raise money for it.
Along the way, the group secured $1 million from the Utah Legislature, and more recently, $2 million from the Washington County Commission.
Last year, the County Commission passed a resolution supporting SGMT’s finding a permanent home. It also was noted in the resolution that area residents have wanted a dedicated performing arts center for many years.
“We have over 50% of our funds committed to this project,” Dimon McFerson, chair of SGMT’s board, said as he stood by Bennett.
It is estimated that it will take between $10 million-plus for the facility SGMT plans to construct. While no designs for it exist yet, McFerson said they are aiming for something that is 20,000 square feet in size, at least two stories high and has 375 or more seats compared to the opera house’s 125 seats – a number the theater group has outgrown.
“St. George Musical Theater has been a part of Southern Utah for decades now,” Councilman Gregg McArthur said. “We’ve been supporting them in our historic opera house, and any of you who go there know they sell out every time. … It’s really hard to get tickets – there’s not enough seats.”
The quality of SGMT’s shows is also incredible, McArthur said, adding, “We, the city, will definitely want to promote this and help it grow.”
SGMT was founded in 1988 by the late Mark Ogden and put on shows in various locations over the years until its five-year hiatus began in 2009.
While the nitty-gritty details of the lease for the property on South Main Street were not discussed during the council meeting, Bennett said “there is absolutely no downside to the city of St. George or the taxpayers of Washington County.”
Under the agreement, SGMT will be able to lease the property for 40 years and is responsible for funding the building of the new performing arts center and its overall maintenance. For its part, the city maintains ownership of the property and gets a facility dedicated to the performing arts. Once constructed – Bennett said they hope to have it built by the end of 2024 – the facility is expected to bring up to 60,000 people to that part of downtown St. George.
“It’s very exciting to me personally to be able to bring some exciting development to an area that’s been under-developed for many years,” Bennett said.
Councilwoman Danielle Larkin said she liked how the public-private partnership with SGMT had worked out thus far and praised them for coming to the city with a plan and capital to back it up.
“We’re working together for this partnership and I hope we’ll see more of these,” Larkin said.
Though the city of St. George has the opera house and the Electric Theater that was renovated in the mid-2010s for public use, Bennett said he believes the new building will be the first brand new arts facility built since the opera house opened its doors 160 years ago.
“This is clearly the most exciting and most significant arts development or opportunity in many, many decades here, so we’re thrilled that we could be a part of it,” he said.
The St. George Musical Theater will continue to hold shows out of the opera house until the new facility is built.
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