The Fremont Opera House has a long history in Fremont.
The five-story building on Broad Street, then known as Love Larson Opera House, held its grand opening show on Dec. 14, 1888. It was also the first building in Fremont to be named to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975.
While the historic building has been a part of the Fremont community for more than a century, its future viability seemed to be in question as it was recently red tagged for structural integrity by the City of Fremont due to outward bowing on the building’s north wall.
“The brick is definitely blown out,” City Administrator Brian Newton said in a Wednesday phone interview with the Tribune. “Someone actually turned it in to us, and we went out and obviously saw the bowing and contacted the owner.”
While the venue’s front door now features a red tag that reads: “DANGER: DO NOT ENTER—UNSAFE TO OCCUPY,” Fremont Opera House Manager Chris Bristol says indications are that building’s structure is sound.
“The red tag obviously is discouraging to us and a lot of people, but as it relates to the structural integrity of the building, the building is as structurally sound as you are probably going to find in Fremont,” he said. “The city is obviously concerned for people’s safety, as are we, but we’ve had several experts come through including city inspectors that believe the integrity of the building is not compromised in anyway. Obviously that north wall is a danger so the parking lot has been closed off and until we start to make some progress with that the red tag will remain there.”
The parking lot to the north of the opera house is currently cordoned off with traffic cones and yellow caution tape to keep people away as the wall clearly shows bowing and cracking on red bricks about a third of the way up the structure.
According to Newton, the red tag declaring the building as unsafe to occupy is a precautionary measure.
“If all that brick falls off, what happens?” he asked rhetorically. “We just don’t know right now and we can’t take that risk. So until the owner has a structural engineer come in and give the OK, we are just avoiding any possible safety risk.”
According to Bristol, Fremont Opera House officials met with structural engineer Vance Behrens of Structural Design Group based out of Lincoln, as well as Ramey Fauss of Fauss Construction in Hooper, on Tuesday.
“Vance was very impressed with the integrity of the interior of the building and we are all in agreement that the outer wall where the bulge is, is 99 percent cosmetic,” he said. “The wall itself is actually 18 inches thick, which is five bricks wide, so we are confident that those other four layers are sound.”
Bristol also said the north wall has long had a very small bubble, and that the bowing began to worsen at a quick pace this past winter.
“As January progressed and we had a lot of moisture, heating and cooling, that wall all of the sudden started pushing out a lot faster than any of us anticipated,” he said.
Newton said the red tag can come down as soon as a structural engineer provides a written report to the city ensuring the building’s structural integrity.
“If (the engineer) signs off, then we are happy,” he said. “I told the owner we are not trying to shut them down because it’s a great asset to our community, but we just have to err on the side of caution and safety.”
Bristol also says the Fremont Opera House is also erring on the side of caution and encouraging people to stay clear of the parking lot.
“Obviously it’s blocked off but there is evidence of people walking around and through that parking lot because the trash receptacle is overflowing,” he said. “We are concerned with the safety just as much as the city is and we don’t want to see anyone get hurt in the event that the wall would give.”
Although the Fremont Opera House is currently closed due to the bulging wall, Bristol says repair work is expected to begin soon and that he expects the venue will re-open shortly.
“We are hoping to have the north wall secured within the next three weeks,” he said. “So much of the holdup has just been trying to get the right people with the right knowledge base together to find the right course of action, but repairs are going to be happening very quickly.”
Bristol also said the plan is to move ahead with Fauss Construction as the general contractor for the repair project.
“Ramey has a genuine interest in the building and the knowledge and connections that we are going to need to make this a successful restoration,” he said.
While Bristol is confident in the long term viability of the building, there is some uncertainty related to two upcoming events at the opera house.
Those events include planned performances by Sundae + Mr. Goessl on April 27, and Gooch and His Guys on May 4.
“We are confident the building will be secured by the May 4 show, however we are still a bit uncertain about the 27th so we are securing an alternate location,” he said. “We are hopeful and optimistic of this timeline, but we also understand scheduling and weather concerns could prevent that from happening.”
Bristol also apologized to Care Corps, whose “Keys to Fremont” fundraising banquet on April 5 was moved to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church due the situation.
“We feel absolutely terrible,” he said. “To our other renters and events and things like that there shouldn’t be any further disruption.”
Bristol also dispelled rumors of the Fremont Opera House’s demise, and reassured patrons and community members about the venue’s long-term viability.
“The opera house will be around for a long time to come,” he said. “Contrary to some reports out there that the future of the building is uncertain, we are very excited and we are continuing to make plans moving forward. This is just a bump in the road for us and we apologize for any inconvenience.”
The City of Fremont now has an official plan of attack for addressing the little green bug wreaking havoc on ash trees across the country.
The Fremont City Council approved a resolution to adopt the Emerald Ash Borer Plan at its meeting on Tuesday. The plan was approved by a unanimous 7-0 vote by the Council, with Councilmember Matt Bechtel not in attendance.
The plan calls for the removal and replanting of ash trees in public spaces, including city parks and rights-of-way, over the next 10 years.
“We came up with this plan to be proactive and hopefully address the issue before it becomes a problem in Fremont,” Director of Parks and Recreation Kim Koski said at the meeting. “Our plan is to create a tree inventory, see where the trees are that need to be removed, and plan for replanting over the next 10 years.”
The Emerald Ash Borer is an invasive species of beetle that was first found infesting ash trees in the Detroit, Michigan area in 2002. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture confirmed that the Emerald Ash Borer was discovered during a site inspection in Omaha’s Pulaski Park in June 2016.
In July 2016, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a department of the United States Department of Agriculture, issued a federal order to quarantine Cass, Dodge, Douglas, Sarpy and Washington counties.
“Dodge County has been quarantined, and so it is just a matter of time before it gets here,” Koski said.
The first step of the new Emerald Ash Borer Plan is to complete an inventory and map this summer of all public ash trees in Fremont.
According to information released by the Fremont Parks and Recreation Department, a preliminary inventory includes 600 trees in city rights-of-way between city streets and sidewalks, 100 trees in city parks, and almost 200 trees in city rights-of-way under electrical lines.
“The inventory will help us see where the trees are that need to be removed and to plan for replanting,” Koski said. “It’s over a 10-year period and with the inventory we will see which trees are in worse shape and start there. We have seen people who have done the clear cut and they have no trees now, so we definitely don’t want to do that.”
According to the plan, ash trees in city rights-of-way will be removed free of charge. As far as on private property, city plans to make available a disposal site for ash trees as well as create a remove-and-replace program known as Trees for Fremont.
“As far as handling trees from the public, if they have to pay to get their trees taken down that is going to be pretty costly for them,” Koski said. “So we are going to possibly open the tree dump during the summer … to help us monitor the trees that are coming in.”
During council discussion over the resolution, Council President Scott Schaller asked for clarification on what the plan means for private residents and their options in dealing with the Emerald Ash Borer.
“This does not prevent any homeowner from treating their trees if they want to treat their trees?” asked Schaller of Koski.
“Not at all,” Koski responded. “Part of the plan is to educate the community and have pamphlets and flyers to let them (the public) know their options, and let them know that we are not just going to cut them or come clear cut every tree in Fremont, it is going to be a process.”
Councilmember Susan Jacobus offered a similar question to Koski regarding the replacement of ash trees that are to be taken down in rights-of-way.
“Should a person have a tree taken down in the right-of-way, are they given a free tree to plant?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t say free,” Koski responded. “In the past with the Trees for Fremont program we have sold trees for $35 apiece, and that is what we are working on as far as grants and other funding to allow people to purchase saplings at a reasonable price.”
Koski added that the prospect of attempting to chemically treat all of the city’s ash trees, instead of cutting and replanting, would be a costly endeavor.
She said depending on the size of the tree, chemical treatments cost anywhere from $150-400 per tree. She also added that depending on which chemical is used, treatments have to be done either annually or biannually throughout the life of the tree.
“With our 100 trees in the parks and 600 in the rights-of way, that is pretty expensive—anywhere from $90,000 to 150,000 depending on the chemical and how many times we have to treat it,” she said.
A bill moving through the state legislature would put a social worker in each of Nebraska’s 17 Educational Service Units.
LB998, introduced by Fremont’s Sen. Lynne Walz, would create the “Collaborative School Behavioral and Mental Health Program.” That program would provide each ESU with a social worker, “to train teachers and other school personnel” and “to work with parents, schools, behavioral and mental health care providers, and other community resources in order to provide timely, effective and family-centered services,” according to the text of the bill.
“I had so many people contact me while I was out campaigning about the need for behavioral mental health for kids in schools,” Walz told the Tribune. “There is a big shortages of services for that, not only in urban areas, but especially in rural areas because they are so far removed from any resources for kids who need that kind of help.”
The bill was just passed in Select File on Tuesday, with 29 yes votes, eight no votes. Ten senators were present but did not vote, and two were excused and did not vote. It has been moved to a final reading.
The new bill could help address challenges in providing mental health resources to students in the 16 school districts of Educational Service Unit #2, according to ESU 2 Administrator Ted DeTurk and Director of Student Services Daniel Bombeck.
“You’re asking a group of people, the teachers in general, who went to school to be educators and to focus on teaching and learning to now have an understanding of bipolar, to now have an understanding of depression,” DeTurk said. “We don’t have that skill set. That’s why I think [LB998] is so important, to be able to bring some experts in the field as a resource for us.”
Bombeck, representing ESU 2, gave a verbal testimony in favor of the bill during a February meeting of the legislature’s education committee, according to a committee report of the meeting. From the ESU system, he was not alone. Representatives from ESU 3, ESU 13 and the ESU Coordinating Council, which coordinates the activities of all 17 ESUs, are all listed as proponents who gave verbal testimony.
In practice, the new program would allow schools who have identified students facing behavioral or mental health issues to notify a social worker assigned to the ESU. That social worker can connect that student and their families to the appropriate resources in their communities, whether it be counseling or other services provided by a local non-profit.
“Our goal is that the social worker will also be able to provide preventative education to families and students in the school system,” Walz said.
The program will be privately funded without taxpayer dollars and is set to last three years, Walz added. At that point, the legislature will assess the program’s efficacy and decide its future.
“We have not secured all the funds that we need to yet, but I think that donors are waiting just to make sure the bill passed,” Walz said. “As soon as we get through session, we will go out and aggressively start looking for private donations.”
ESU 2 previously looked at its mental health needs through the creation of its independent school several years ago. That program is geared toward students who have had behavioral issues that may be interrupting education for other students. The independent school is a separate educational program that aims to address those behavioral issues without interrupting student learning.
But that program is mostly reactive, DeTurk said. Currently, teachers’ options in addressing students’ behavioral and mental health issues are mostly reactive—such as through law enforcement or Health and Human Services.
The hope is that a specially assigned social worker could help students proactively, by linking them to the appropriate services that could address personal issues before they translate into behavioral issues. That’s especially important because students facing behavioral issues are often dealing with some underlying trauma that could be worked through in counseling or other resources, Bombeck said.
“Hopefully, what we can do is move through a process where we’re providing the opportunity for students to stay at their own school and deal with the underlying issue,” Bombeck said. “What this bill does is helps the student get at the underlying issue or concern, whereas right now, we’re treating the symptoms, not the issue.”
It would also give each ESU a mental health professional who can help Nebraska’s educators navigate the state’s mental health system, and would know how to connect students to resources that can benefit whole families.
“I know people say, ‘you already have a counselor’—those folks are educated as an educational counselor,” DeTurk said. “We’re talking about students whose needs are greater than that.”
The program’s three-year term does raise questions about sustainability, DeTurk said. For it to continue beyond that, the ESUs and the state legislature would need to see success. That could be reflected in a number of metrics that the ESU might look at—the number of office referrals, behavior incidents or suspensions, for instance.
If the schools decide to move forward, the next question will be funding. Success could lead to continued private funding.
“If that doesn’t work, we as schools will need to get creative,” DeTurk said.
Additionally, some teachers have expressed concerns about how any counseling services could affect time in the classroom, DeTurk said.
Walz also acknowledged that the bill won’t address all of Nebraska’s schools’ mental health needs.
“It’s going to really help in rural areas,” she said. “In urban areas, there’s probably a need for more social workers in the school system.”
Sen. Lydia Brasch, whose district includes parts of ESU 2 and who voted against the bill in select file, declined to comment on her concerns about the bill.
To become law, the bill must now be voted on after a final reading, and then be signed off by the governor.