The planned renovation of the Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts in downtown Westport again earned rave reviews from town officials Wednesday night, as the Board of Finance unanimously approved a $1.1 million town appropriation for the project.

Construction of a new pavilion at the town-owned site would cost an estimated $6.7 million, according to a June 18 letter submitted to Board of Finance Chairman Avi Kaner by Freda Welsh, the pavilion's executive director, and Parks and Recreation Director Stuart McCarthy, who is also the project manager for the pavilion renovation.

"I remember when it was a dump," said board member Michael Rea, who expressed concerns in recent weeks about the environmental and economic impact of building a new pavilion on its current site, a former municipal landfill. "We threw some soil over it, but over the decades, Levitt Pavilion donors and volunteers kept that dream alive about what Westport should be now. This represents what Westport should be in the future."

Other board members, including Janis Collins, who formerly served as chairwoman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, also offered enthusiastic backing for the town's appropriation for the pavilion overhaul.

"I think it's important that we create an outstanding pavilion," she said. "Many people have worked very hard on this, and I think it's going to be spectacular and beautiful."

Renovation of the pavilion would represent one of the most significant capital projects undertaken in downtown Westport during the last decade. While the town would appropriate $1.1 million, the overhaul of the pavilion would be funded mostly by private donations, according to a proposal by Friends of the Levitt Pavilion, a nonprofit organization that helps to raise funds for the pavilion's operations.

Friends of the Levitt's plan also calls for the town's contribution to include a $100,000 allocation to a special account to be used only for insurance and contingencies related to building work at the pavilion grounds.

Renovation plans for the pavilion have already been approved by town boards.

With a total $1.1 million town appropriation, construction of the new pavilion could begin in September, while fundraising would continue, according to Friends of the Levitt Pavilion. If started in September, the new pavilion could be ready for the 2013 summer season.

The $1.1 million appropriation, however, must be approved by the full Representative Town Meeting before building work can start.

The RTM will likely vote Tuesday on the allocation. The RTM Finance Committee unanimously voted at a July 17 meeting to support the Friends of the Levitt's funding request.

First Selectman Gordon Joseloff reiterated Wednesday his strong support for the town providing financial backing for the pavilion's renovation.

"It's a good investment," he said. "As we emerge hopefully out of recession, we will be faced with a number of requests for town funding, and we will look at them all. It's a matter of what we sense the support is among our elected boards and among our taxpayers to fund these projects. I sense overwhelming support for this one."

Joe Feeney, who lives in the Greens Farms section of Westport and frequently attends shows at the pavilion, also expressed backing for the improvements proposed by the Friends of the Levitt.

"I just wanted to let everybody know how much I appreciate this new project going on at the Levitt Pavilion," Feeney said. "Growing up in Westport in a [wheel]chair, it was very difficult to attend different functions and different activities, but with the Levitt Pavilion I've gone to every performance and really enjoyed it."

Friends of the Levitt Pavilion will pay for any renovation costs not covered by town and state funds. Small Town Economic Assistance Program grants from the state totaling $450,000 will go toward the pavilion renovation.

To prepare for the new pavilion, the site's original bandshell was taken down in 2007 and replaced by a temporary stage.

Friends of the Levitt has already raised about $4.2 million through a combination of gifts in hand, commitments and grants. It also has access to a line of credit to cover the balance of yet-to-be raised funds, allowing construction to move ahead while fundraising continues, according to Welsh and McCarthy's letter to Kaner.

"The fact that this project won the support of all seven Finance Board members is reflective of how worthy the project is and how much value the town will be getting from it," Ken Bernhard, Friends of the Levitt's legal counsel, told the Westport News after Wednesday's meeting.

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