In multi-part series, exclusive to the Maine Maine Real Estate Insider, we’ll provide an up-close look at the most notable commercial development projects of the past year that are helping to fuel Maine’s economy in terms of investment and job creation. MEREDA is proud to recognize responsible development based upon criteria including environmental sustainability, economic impact, energy efficiency, difficulty of the development, uniqueness, social impact and job creation.
Please join with us in celebrating Aura.
MEREDA: Describe the building and project.
Aura: I would describe Aura as a labor of love. The building is the transformation of a successful but tired venue called Asylum. Aura is our new expanded and rebranded 24,500 SF event and performance center, located in downtown Portland. It was designed by WBRC Architects Engineers, built by Consigli, and completed in April 2017. I was recently told by a booking agent that they believe Aura is one of the top three venues in the U.S. for its size!
MEREDA: What was the impetus for this project?
Aura: We (Aura owners Krista Newman, Valerie Levy, and Laurie Willey) were coming up on 20th year in business and needed a change. We had grown, had children, and we wanted our space to better reflect us. We had researched what the local scene needed and saw an opportunity for a larger venue.
The name Asylum has also become a problem. We were hosting more national acts and some of them did not care for that name. It’s also not easy to sell a lunchtime corporate event to a group of professionals at a place called Asylum. We needed something more upscale, a place where we could reach out to a broader audience and host more community events.
MEREDA: How long were you in the planning stages before construction started?
Aura: I don’t really recall the timeline – it was a whirlwind, I must say. We’d come up with the idea to renovate, and met with Rob Frank at WBRC, and he introduced us our architect, Jocelyn Boothe. We really clicked; I can’t say enough good things about her. She went back and forth with us for weeks, getting to know each other, refining ideas.
Our planning took a major turn when we decided to add a balcony. We hadn’t had one in the original design or budget. Then we took a trip to visit Gracie Theatre in Bangor and saw their balcony. We decided we wanted to add one, but it required going back to the drawing board, and the planning board.
The balcony was probably the best idea of the whole project; it’s amazing to think that it was an afterthought.
MEREDA: Tell us about the most challenging aspect of getting this project completed.
Aura: The timeframe was the biggest challenge. We have a great staff; many have been here over 10 years. They are like family, and we didn’t want to have to lay people off during renovations or lose anyone to the construction process. Fortunately, we were able to keep the sports bar open during most of construction. It only closed for about a month, in August.
The building construction had to be completed in nine months to start our performance season in April, and we were freaking out near the end. But somehow the Consigli team pulled it off.
MEREDA: Something unexpected you learned along the way was. . .
Aura: I learned to rely on the professional knowledge base of the people around us. It was hard sometimes to not to control everything. We had trust that the architect, engineers, interior designer and acoustics people knew what they were talking about. Luckily for us, they did.
Our architect Jocelyn’s attention to detail is amazing and alleviated a lot of stress from of us. While we were still Asylum, she came to a couple of sold-out shows and watched the flow of people. She decided we needed two sets of double doors at the entrance so people could exit quicker. Then she said, “The restrooms aren’t quite big enough, it’s too long of a wait. Why don’t we lose that closet and add an extra restroom?” I don’t know a lot of architects would come to two or three shows to really research the little items that are big items for us.
MEREDA: Now that it’s complete, what feature of the project do you think makes it the most notable?
Aura: It’s such an intimate space now. The balcony and the sightlines are amazing. No matter where you are, you feel like you’re right next to the people who are performing or the person who’s speaking.
The spaces at Aura are really special and unique. There’s a feeling of relaxation here. I love the airiness of it. Right before we opened, a friend came in and said, “This is going to sound strange, but when I walk in here, it feels peaceful, almost churchlike.” I’ve heard other people make similar comments. It has a really good aura, which seems funny to say. We worked with a local branding company called Blaze to come up with the new name, and it was hard to choose one before the space was built. I’m glad we chose Aura. It’s perfect.