VCTC puts Volga City Opera House up for sale after 14 years saving it

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The Volga City Opera House opened in 1914. A restoration effort by non-profit VCTC that began 14 years ago has “saved” the building, and it’s ready for new ownership. (Photos by Jillian Webb Herrmann)

In 14 years, a long list of volunteers turned the opera house from a wildlife sanctuary bound for the scrap yard into a profit generating operation, completely flipping a revenue stream that heavily relied on donations and grants. In recent years, it was food and beverage and ticket sales leading the way.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


The history of the Volga City Opera House is one of ups and downs, peaks and valleys, but much like Volga itself, it has somehow endured decades of constant change and struggle often associated with rural America. 


Completed in 1914, the opera house stands today as a vestige of the small town’s past and an anecdote to the resiliency of the people who remain and remember the ups more than the downs.


Since the curtains first went up on May 7, 1914, the opera house has been home to many events, like the first show it hosted, “The Lion and the Mouse.” It was where school dances were held, as well as weddings, graduations, traveling theater performances and live music. It was even home to different businesses, like the Volga City News, a butcher shop, grocery store and several bars. 


It was central to the community and very much ingrained in its identity, but time is often cruel and unfair, and in the case of the opera house, time, decay and a devastating flood made attempts to remove the building from its spot in the stories of future generations and from the corner on which is sits.


It’s actually no small feat that the Volga City Opera House has survived, given how close it’s come to meeting its end, requiring saving from demolition on numerous occasions. One was in the 1980s, when it was in such disrepair it was placed on the auction block. Many thought it would simply be razed or torn down, but area farmer Dennis McTaggart purchased the building and got to work repairing the brick and foundation. 


The opera house changed hands again in 1984, when the first set of Klingmans, Dennis and Rosemary, bought it and turned it into a full service restaurant before selling it in 1993 to Joe Kuhse. Along with partner Kevin Rogers, Kuhse continued the restaurant, while also holding events. Volga City Floral and Gift was even located on the lower level.


It’s fair to say that, during that time period, the opera house was at one of its peaks, but valleys always follow. Like the rolling hills Volga rests on, the opera house was soon on the decline, though through no fault of any owner, but Mother Nature. The flood of 1999 put the opera house once again into a state of flux and, by 2010, it looked bound for the wrecking ball, until a familiar name, along with a partner, stepped in to be the building’s latest saviors from demolition.


In 2010, Tom Klingman, whose parents owned the building previously, was approached by Tom Lott, founder of the Volga City Truck Cruise and mayor of Volga at that time, and Bill Crandall about saving the opera house. Klingman spent his youth in the opera house when it was a bustling place packed with residents and tourists, acquiring fond memories that drove his decision to join the effort. Whether it would succeed was questionable.


“Honestly, when we started the effort to save the opera house, I thought we would fail,” Klingman recalled.


The sentiment didn’t improve much after he toured the building with Lott. He saw a place he believed “was too far gone,” and the overall condition of the building was “totally derelict” and a “safety hazard.” 


The list of problems with the building in 2010 was lengthy: a leaky roof, broken windows and doors, deteriorating foundation and, according to Klingman, you could “stand in the basement and see the sky.” Cosmetic issues weren’t even the biggest challenge, but the fact that, in the decade since it closed, before VCTC purchased the building for $1 in 2010, the opera house had turned into the permanent residency of local wildlife like foxes and skunks. But the opera house, as Klingman stated, is the “heart of the community,” so VCTC set about restoring it to its former glory.


Along with that motivation and childhood memories, Klingman mentioned another overarching reason that compelled him to get involved: to restore the reputation of Volga. 


“When we started this project in 2010, people had really negative comments about Volga,” Klingman said.


However, in the early years, Klingman admitted, things weren’t “very organized.” They each had their roles, with Klingman focused on administration, grant writing, fundraising and construction, while Lott was in charge of event management, fundraising and construction. Crandall was a mentor who offered encouragement, while also being responsible for a phone call in 2014 to a former classmate that ended in a $50,000 donation.


“Our goal was simple: save the opera house,” Klingman said.


The founding of the VCTC in 2010 was a key moment in the life of the opera house, a moment that decided its fate. Would it remain in the valley or crest to a new peak? 


The answer laid in the hard work that took place, and from the beginning, the community was heavily involved, showing up and volunteering time to clean out the building and work on the roof, the first major project undertaken by the VCTC. In 2012, new windows and doors were installed thanks to a grant from the Upper Mississippi Gaming Corporation (UMGC). A UMGC grant also covered the cost of tuckpointing in 2014. From there, spray foam insulation was put in in 2016, and, in 2017, bathrooms were installed.


In the midst of all of this, in 2016, the opera house held one of its first events, a town hall meeting to provide a status update. At that time, Klingman was of the opinion that the mission had been accomplished. For what would be the first time, but not the last, he thought they should put the building up for sale, but a local mentor suggested the renovation was incomplete and could not be considered “saved,” until if could “function with a profit.” 


In 2017, Lott stepped away from the VCTC, as did Crandall. Since then, Volga native George Duff has been Klingman’s business partner on the project.


Since 2017, the list of improvements has grown to include a balcony, stage curtains and lights, wiring, updated sound equipment, plumbing, installation of a prep kitchen and addition of hardwood floors completed just last year.


Comments about Volga have become overwhelmingly positive.


“Now, people speak highly of Volga and our work ethic to get things done. People now admire how our community works together instead of against each other. I regularly get people saying they wish they could move to Volga. Our perception from the outside world is completely different today than 14 years ago, thanks to this project opening their eyes,” Klingman said.


The opera house has been home to many memorable moments, and for Klingman specifically, a few stand out apart from saving the building. One is knowing the opera house brought families and friends together, including him and his estranged father, by giving them a common interest as they reconnected and worked together to rescue the building and their relationship. It also gave Klingman’s son, who started helping at age 11, develop a strong work ethic. It’s also where, through his friendship with Duff, that Klingman met Duff’s daughter, Bethany, who he eventually married.


“The opera house has helped me meet some amazing people, and given me many great experiences. To try to highlight one or two events would be impossible. I will say the opera house renovation was a volunteer effort for me, but I was paid with the relationships I have gained during that time,” Klingman said.


As for Bethany, her first involvement with the opera house was in 2022, when she was asked to make desserts for a show with the Wartburg Knightlighters. From there, she made desserts for other shows and joined in a leadership role, eventually taking over as executive director of the opera house in August 2023. Along with Nikki Pope and Rhonda Fry, they quickly started filling the calendar with events and Sunday brunches.


In 14 years, Klingman and a long list of volunteers turned the opera house from a wildlife sanctuary bound for the scrap yard into a profit generating operation, completely flipping a revenue stream that heavily relied on donations and grants. In recent years, it was food and beverage and ticket sales leading the way. 


For Klingman, this meant he had fulfilled the prerequisite. The building could finally be declared saved, so a decision had to be made. Would the VCTC own it or would they try to sell?


The ultimate decision came to maintaining the non-profit status of the VCTC, and whether or not Bethany wanted to continue operating the business through leasing the building from the VCTC. Although Bethany had ideas of growing the business, after mulling the decision for about six weeks, she decided not to move forward. Among the reasons was their relationship and the fact the time commitment would have limited how often the two were able to see each other.


The other reason? Bethany stated she was simply “too terrified.” 


“When it came down to going into being a small business, I frankly was too terrified. How do we make this work, what happens if it isn’t successful, what then, were just a few of the rabbit hole thoughts. People who go into business for themselves and make it work are some of the most courageous people I know because it is a horse of a different color,” she said.


On April 30, Klingman took to Facebook to announce that, after 14 years, the VCTC would put the Volga City Opera House up for sale, as the goal of saving the building was accomplished. It was “time for someone new to take ownership and take the Volga City Opera House to the next level,” that it “deserves someone who will love it as a career.”


“The opera house needs someone who is ready to come all the way in and sit all the way down. It needs someone who is ready to eat, sleep, breathe all things opera house,” Bethany added in a separate exchange.


As for Klingman, while he will remember the experiences, friendships, relationships and years working alongside a host of volunteers that highlight how “impressive” the community in Volga is, the opera house is ready for it’s next chapter and owner. It needs someone who will “take pride in owning the building and understands the significance of the building. An owner of the Volga City Opera House who will go down in our local history,” Klingman said. 


The sale of the opera house also means an end for the VCTC, which will dissolve at the conclusion of the sale. As Klingman stated, with the opera house being saved, the VCTC is “no longer needed.” He added that, if another situation similar to the opera house arose, there would be the possibility to start a new organization. All funds from the sale of the opera house will go to the new Shaping Volga Endowment Fund, another community driven project which he and Bethany are involved in to build a lasting legacy in Volga City.


“With that project, we are once again seeing the community work together to ensure a bright future. I am always impressed with how the people of this town come together,” Klingman said.

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