The campaign to renovate aging Willson Auditorium got a big boost Friday when the Gilhousen Foundation donated $300,000 to the fundraising campaign.

“It's amazing news,” said Mary Jo O'Donnell, director of the Bozeman Schools Foundation, which is in charge of the fundraising campaign. “This is so exciting. It will make a huge difference.”

O'Donnell, who got the news while in Red Lodge to see her daughter race with the Bridger Ski Foundation, said the Gilhousen grant increases the total donations raised so far to $2.5 million.

The school foundation's goal is to raise $3.5 million by the end of March. That's what is estimated it would take to do all four phases of the project and fix up Bozeman's largest performance space.

The good news is that the $2.5 million raised so far is more than enough to pay for the most important part of the renovation plan – fixing up Willson Auditorium itself. That $1.8 million basic project includes fixing up the acoustics, the backstage and reupholstering the auditorium's 1,100 seats.

The next priority for the project, costing $700,000, would install an elevator and bathrooms. O'Donnell said the Bozeman School Board will have to decide how much it might contribute to that.

The next priority is to fix up the lobby area, estimated to cost $300,000.

“I really want to get the lobby done,” O'Donnell said. “I'd hate to see the auditorium be all new and fresh and not update the lobby as well.”

The fourth priority is to reconfigure the second-floor library to create some conference and storage rooms.

“I feel good,” about the fundraising so far, O'Donnell said. “We've had such a wide variety of people give, from $25 to $1 million.”

The $1 million donor is anonymous. There have also been Bozeman High School alumni who've banded together to give $500 to honor a favorite music teacher.

The foundation's “Take a Seat” campaign has raised over $100,000 so far, but there are still hundreds of seats available, she said.

For a donation of $500, $1,000 or $2,500, people can have a plaque placed on the back of an auditorium seat.

Plaques can be inscribed with three lines of text, with up to 21 letters per line. Some donors have chosen to inscribe a person's name and dates on a plaque, others “in memory of” and still others have asked for sayings about music.

Another major donation was a $200,000 matching grant from the Murdock Charitable Trust.

One upcoming fundraising event will be a telethon on KBZK on March 18 to 20, she said.

Construction bids will be sought in February and then the School Board will decide at the end of March how much of the project it can do, based on how much is raised by then.

The bottom line, O'Donnell said, is “it's going to happen.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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