Baraboo's latest arts investment could boost the town's top 5 national tourism ranking

Which small, south central Wisconsin city is a champion of the arts and historic preservation, emphasizes family values, and was ranked one of the nation’s top five small towns to visit in 2013?

Answer: Baraboo, Wis.

Last year, Smithsonian magazine asked Esri, a geographic information company, to scour its database for U.S. towns and cities with populations of 15,000 or less using a variety of culture-based criteria. The statistical rankings were then printed in the magazine’s list of “The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2013.” Baraboo came in fourth, behind number one Gettysburg, Pa.; Cleveland, Miss.; and St. Augustine, Fla.

“Some communities tear down their historic buildings. We celebrate them.” — Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm

It’s a distinction that Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm wears with pride, but one that doesn’t necessarily surprise him. Just a quick 45-minute jaunt from Middleton, Baraboo’s downtown boasts the world-renowned Circus World Museum, the Al. Ringling Mansion, the International Clown Hall of Fame, and a gilded but aging beauty, the Al. Ringling Theatre, which celebrates its centennial next year.

From the inside, the theater, affectionately known as “the Al.,” looks stunning, but upon closer inspection, the 99-year-old performance hall, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, shows its age at every turn. “The chairs are worn, there’s plaster damage, the roof leaked,” said Palm.

Murals, including one that once graced the domed ceiling above the main floor seats, are either faded, or worse, were painted over through the years. Fixtures and mechanicals are 100 years old and in serious need of upgrades.

Thankfully, a group of community-based supporters — Al. Ringling Theatre Friends Inc. — has been committed for years to restoring and preserving the famed theater, which has hosted everything from vaudeville in its early beginnings to more recent live national performances.

The announcement this week that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. had authorized up to $635,200 in Historic Preservation Tax Credits for renovations to the Al. Ringling Theatre couldn’t have come at a better time.

“It all started with the Jeffris Family Foundation Challenge Grant,” said Beth Rozman, interim manager of Al. Ringling Theatre. Last year, the foundation offered a grant of $513,333 for theater restoration work if the Al. Ringling Theatre Friends could raise an additional $1 million within three years.

They did better than that. They met the financial challenge in just one year.

Add to that the newly announced tax credits, and the theater’s future is bright. “Now we can proceed with phases II and III,” Rozman explained. Those phases will focus on structural upgrades to the electrical and plumbing systems and a renovated ladies’ lounge.

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By this time next summer, the theater’s supporters hope that phase III, which will restore the venue’s glitz and glamor, will be underway. During that final phase, brand-new seats will be added to the theater. The Al. seats 680 patrons on its main floor and another 100 or so in half-moon-shaped boxes jutting out the sides and back.

“We want to restore it to its gleaming perfection,” said Rozman, a reference to the theater’s opening night in 1915 when it was billed as “America’s Prettiest Playhouse.” Renovations thus far have not interrupted the theater’s slate of performances, but that will change when major work begins.

Rozman is confident that Al. Ringling Theatre Friends will raise the money necessary to reach the $3.1 million total. “We have promising leads,” she said. In addition to the newly announced state tax credits, the group has already raised $1.5 million locally and through private donations. Now, it is taking its appeal on the road, throughout the state of Wisconsin and as far south as Sarasota, Fla., whose residents have a strong interest in preserving circus history. The late John Ringling, one of the five famed Ringling Brothers whose family established “The Greatest Show on Earth,” once called Sarasota home.

Rozman said the goal is to complete nearly all of the Al.’s renovations in time for its 100th anniversary in November 2015.

“I really feel this is the cultural center of Baraboo and the surrounding communities,” Rozman said of the theater. “It’s a fantastic performing arts center with fabulous acoustics due to its elliptical design.”

And it’s just one of several major tourist attractions within the city’s downtown.

“The Al. is invaluable to [Baraboo],” said Mayor Palm. “You can’t put a dollar amount on it. It brings so many people into the downtown area. If you look at other downtowns, some thrive, and some are shells of what they used to be.”

Just last week, he said, Baraboo officials met with the Wisconsin Historical Society to pursue a National Historical District designation for Baraboo’s downtown, joining cities such as Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans in an honorary acknowledgement of the city’s authentic architecture and preservation practices. The request is now on its way to the United States Department of the Interior-National Park Service for consideration, a process that could take as long as six months.

“I have handshake assurances that we have one of the best intact downtowns in the state,” said the hopeful mayor.

“Some communities tear down their historic buildings,” he added. “We celebrate them.”

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