AUGUSTA — A plan to restore and reopen the neglected but historic Colonial Theater includes adding a 13,000-square-foot, multi-story building next to it, an ambitious timeline for the work, and a schedule of as many as 300 shows a year in the hope that it could bring culture, people and revenue to the city’s downtown.
Organizers of nonprofit efforts to restore and preserve the vacant theater, which is between Water Street and the Kennebec River, said the region is starved for the performing arts, they already have acts and shows they could bring there, and the theater would bring people to fill the city’s downtown and area restaurants and other businesses.
First, however, they need to raise about $6 million to restore the 1913 theater, which has been vacant since it closed in 1969.
City councilors expressed informal support for City Manager William Bridgeo’s proposal to use $300,000 in city funds left over from the Lithgow Public Library renovation and expansion to provide a “challenge grant” to help spur fundraising to renovate and reopen the privately owned Colonial Theater.
He said the money could help prompt private donations for the restoration of the derelict, vacant Water Street theater. Before voters approved borrowing $8 million for the Lithgow project, the city put up $500,000, which helped spur private fundraising efforts by showing the city was committed to the project.
Richard Parkhurst, leader of a nonprofit group working to raise funds and restore the theater, agreed a city commitment would help spur donations to the project, which so far have totaled about $300,000.
“I’m comfortable saying I have at least $1 million sitting on the fence right now” from private donors, Parkhurst said. “They’re ready to commit, but they’re wondering if the city is behind it.”
The proposal to provide $300,000 in city money, if private fundraising for the project is successful, is expected to go to councilors for a vote next Thursday.
All councilors who spoke about the proposal Thursday spoke in favor of it.
“I support absolutely anything to help this project move forward,” Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant said. “Richard, thank you for your belief in the community and your passion for this building. Every night of Chizzle Wizzle is packed, and when I leave that show, I think, ‘I wish we could do this more often.’ With this vision for downtown, I think we can accomplish that.”
Parkhurst, who owns several downtown buildings, said he isn’t waiting for fundraising to be complete and work is underway on the building. He said asbestos will be removed from upper levels of the building this month and he hopes a new roof will be installed by the middle of November.
He said it’d be more helpful if the city provided the $300,000 in funding now, rather than at the completion of fundraising, but said he didn’t have a problem with the city funds being awarded only when fundraising is complete.
“It doesn’t meet the needs, but it helps,” Parkhurst said in response to councilors’ questions. “The Colonial needs the city’s support and will take any money it’ll give it. It’s critical to the donors they know the city is behind the project.”
Bridgeo said the money would be provided once fundraising is complete so taxpayer money would not be spent only to see the project never be completed.
The theater was listed on Maine Preservation’s Most Endangered Properties list in 2011, but it also was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014.
The proposed theater would have about 800 seats and include a new structure to be built on a now-vacant lot next door, which Parkhurst said was donated to the project by Winthrop resident Tom Johnson.
The new building would allow the project to add bathrooms and other modern amenities and be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that it be accessible to everyone.
Dick Dyer, former marketing director for the similarly sized Waterville Opera House, who now works in radio marketing and produces concerts and other events, said the opera house brings about $1 million a year in revenue to the city, in the form of money spent in the area by attendees of events there.
“In Waterville there are a number of restaurants, and every single one will tell me they turn over their tables three times a night when there is a show at the opera house,” Dyer said. “There is an incredible interest in the arts in this area. I don’t see how you could lose. It’s an investment you’ll see returned many times over, not only in economic impact, but in quality of life.”
He said national touring acts would be interested in booking shows at that size of a theater.
Parkhurst said the Colonial Theater already is working with a children’s theater group to start a program now that will take place in local schools for now and move into the theater when it opens in 29 months.
He said the Augusta Symphony Orchestra would make it their home and the Theater at Monmouth would make it their winter home. He said a typical theater books around 170 shows a year, but he’d like to book between 270 and 300 a year at the Colonial Theater, with affordable shows.
Events would include live theater, musical concerts, movies and other cultural activities.
Councilors asked about parking for events there.
Parkhurst said with 800 seats, parking could be a problem; but he hoped to work out an arrangement with the city to help provide parking, although nothing specific has been worked out or proposed. He said event attendees could park throughout the city, and possibly be shuttled to the theater and back to their cars.
Parkhurst said part of the project will be financed with historic preservation tax credits, which can be used to pay for up to 45 percent of renovation costs for eligible projects.