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Elkhart Common Council approves first half of $1 million Lerner Theatre HVAC replacement

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The Lerner Theatre needs a $1 million investment in a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, and the Elkhart Common Council voted unanimously Monday to spend $500,000 from the general fund on those upgrades.

The council plans to fund the rest from the city’s American Rescue Plan dollars, but will vote on that funding at their next meeting.

According to documents filed with the council, the Lerner’s 10-year-old HVAC system has been well maintained, but was “extraordinarily undersized” for the theater when it was installed. It has also been damaged by hail and power outages.

Rex Martin, with Friends of the Lerner, said the HVAC upgrade is needed to support the theater.

“This is very important to ensure that the council and the city take care of our assets,” Martin said. “We invested $18 million in it a few years ago, and we need to continue to maintain it.”

Council member David Henke voted to approve the replacement, along with the rest of the council. But he also said he’s concerned that the undersized system was installed in the first place.

“That just simply does not make sense to me,” Henke said. “We’re having to have taxpayers pay yet again for something that we didn’t have good oversight on — so I would like to get to the bottom of it.”

Even though it’s fall, the city elected to start replacing the HVAC system now in preparation for next summer due to COVID-19 supply delays.

The council also voted 7-1, with Henke voting no, to spend $1.5 million on HVAC upgrades for Elkhart City Hall and the City Annex.

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Jakob Lazzaro came to Indiana from Chicago, where he graduated from Northwestern University in 2020 with a degree in Journalism and a double major in History. Before joining WVPE, he wrote NPR's Source of the Week e-mail newsletter, and previously worked for CalMatters, Pittsburgh's 90.5 WESA and North by Northwestern.