After the purchase, the Magic Lantern Theater will become a learning center for local youth. Jane Vaughan / Lakes Region Weekly

BRIDGTON — The Maine 4-H Foundation is $2 million away from buying the Magic Lantern theater and pub, where it plans to create an innovation lab and learning center for local children.

The foundation, which supports the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension programs, has raised about half of the $4 million it hopes to raise for the purchase through a combination of donations and grants.

The mission of the Cooperative Extension is to “bring research-based information out to communities where there are no universities,” said Executive Director of the Maine 4-H Foundation Susan Jennings.

The Magic Lantern will become a hub of creative activity for youth in the Lakes Region, she said. The theaters and the pub will continue to operate as usual.

“In rural areas of Maine, the kids are underserved,” she said. “This project is going to enable young people to learn, but through some amazing opportunities that are wrapped around theater and the arts and creative arts. We’re trying to offer more opportunities for research-based university education to come into the community.”

The learning center will partner with local nonprofits and schools, including Fryeburg Academy, Oxford Hills, Molly Ockett and the Lake Region school system, Jennings said, and the offerings will be varied. There will be lectures and workshops at the Magic Lantern, or students will come to the theater during the day to complete certain educational challenges. In addition, professionals from the University of Maine will travel to surrounding schools to host programs there.

The subjects of these projects will be wide-ranging, Jennings said, from science to engineering to the creative arts.

She said the foundation has spent months building partnerships in the local community and soliciting feedback from residents, librarians, businesses and the school systems.

It is an area where we haven’t had a lot of youth development activity in the past because of where it’s located. We think (the project) has incredible potential. We had some wonderful feedback,” she said. 

The Magic Lantern is co-owned by Frank Howell and Snapdragon Associates, the Howell family’s real estate and intellectual property holding company. Snapdragon holds the property for both the Magic Lantern and Down East Inc. in Bridgton.

The Magic Lantern was put on the market in 2017 when the owners were trying to “semi-retire,” said Howell’s son Justin Kiger.

The owners really got to the point where (the building) needed a lot of direct attention. We didn’t have anybody else on staff who wanted to take over that role. (They wanted) somebody fresh to come in and reinvigorate things, and there wasn’t anybody who had the time and energy to make it happen,” he said. 

Howell wanted to build the theater into more of a community center, which inspired his collaboration with the Maine 4-H Foundation.

Kiger looks forward to seeing the new learning center, saying that the Magic Lantern “sort of needed that bigger vision.”

There’s a lot of opportunity for there to be programs and educators based out of that building. This will enhance that community outreach and really be something that can benefit the kids and education opportunities in the area,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the three-auditorium theater and pub will remain in place, and Jennings said the revenue from those sources will support the learning center, making the Magic Lantern self-sustaining. She said there will be no changes to how the theater currently runs.

“Both of the managers of the theater are being kept on, and their plan is to run the theater as it is now,” Kiger said. “From the public perspective, they’ll see very little change.”

There will be some changes made to the facility, including upgrading the projection facility and dining area and purchasing new furniture.

Jennings said she is not sure when the purchase and renovation will be complete, saying “it depends on how the community responds to this.”

She maintains that the project “is one of the most incredible opportunities for the community for education for the future for kids. It’s an exciting opportunity for kids in rural Maine.” 

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