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Victory Theater project in Holyoke still needs $22M before rebuild can begin

This week on a snowy morning, after a walk-thru of an old theater on Suffolk Street, in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a group of about 30 people sat down to lunch at a favorite local sports club, Jibaritos. They were there to talk about the $22 million still needed to be raised before shovels can go in the ground and begin at least a two-year massive renovation.

Supporters of renovating the hundred-year-old Victory Theater have said it has the capacity to be for the Pioneer Valley what Tanglewood is to the Berkshires.

The Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA) is a non-profit organization that has spent more than a decade trying to raise millions to rebuild and reopen the 1920s-era theater to touring Broadway shows and other large-scale arts events.

Massachusetts Rep. Patrica Duffy, D-Holyoke, stressed to state and local lawmakers from Hampshire and Hampden County and to community developers from around the region that the Victory's economic benefits will go beyond the city.

"A theater like this amplifies the growing restaurant scene in Springfield, the art scene in Northampton, the Five Colleges — in the same way that the "Big E" lifts us all up," Duffy said.

Looking around the room, state Sen. John Velis, D-Westfield, said he didn't know the last time there was a legislative event that brought in so many different people here from all over.

"I'm directing you all to put in $2 million earmarks on behalf of this project," Velis joked.

The Victory Theater development is not just a Holyoke project he said, echoing Duffy and others who emphasized the regional benefits to come.

"The reality of the situation is that this is one of those 'If we build it, folks will come,'" Velis said, adding that a few years ago he was skeptical, but no longer.

MIFA's executive director Donald Sanders said his group has raised about two-thirds of the money needed over the last decade.

"The total amount is $61 million. So we're very well along," Sanders said. "We're seeing this as the final phase of raising the amounts of money that we need to get this place open."

Earlier in the day over at the theater, Sanders reminded the crowd that Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia "threaten[ed] me with demolition .... and I take that very seriously," Saunders said, while smiling.

In the last few months, Garcia has been pushing to keep the project's momentum going. He also recently committed $2 million from the city's federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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