AUGUSTA — City councilors voted unanimously to commit $300,000 in city money Thursday to help restore and reopen the Colonial Theater.

Officials said the Water Street theater, which closed in 1969 and has been vacant for decades, is key to revitalizing the downtown by bringing people there to attend, organizers hope, hundreds of performances a year.

“We’ve got to attract the arts to our community. We’ve got to revitalize downtown. We’re not going to be who we want to be if we don’t get this project done,” Mayor David Rollins said. “Get excited about this. This will change the city.”

The money wouldn’t be paid to the nonprofit group working to restore the theater until the project, estimated to cost as much as $6 million, is substantially complete and a certificate of occupancy has been issued.

City Manager William Bridgeo said that condition was placed on the city grant money so taxpayer money wouldn’t be spent only to see the project fail, such as if too little money is raised from other sources, or the work doesn’t take place for any reason.

At-Large Councilor Cecil Munson said supporting the project “is a no-brainer. I’m in.”

Later Munson said he had not heard even one negative thing about it from anyone.

The plan to restore and reopen the neglected but historic 1913 Colonial Theater includes adding a 13,000-square-foot, multi-story building next to it to help provide better access and more space for the theater, which would have about 800 seats.

The new structure would be built on a now-vacant lot next door, which 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 meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements that it be accessible to everyone.

Richard Parkhurst, leader of the nonprofit group working on the theater, intends to open it in 29 months and host as many as 300 shows a year, including concerts, live theater and children’s theater that could bring culture, people and revenue to the city’s downtown.

Organizers of nonprofit effort 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.

City councilors expressed informal support for City Manager William Bridgeo’s proposal last week to use $300,000 in city money left over from the Lithgow Public Library renovation and expansion to provide the “challenge grant” to help spur fundraising to renovate and reopen the privately owned Colonial Theater.

Bridgeo said the money could help prompt private donations for the restoration of the derelict 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.

Parkhurst has said donations to the project so far have totaled about $300,000. He said he knew of at least $1 million more in donations that he expected donors would make once the city makes a financial commitment to the project.

“We’ve had many donors who said they’d like to see the city’s support, and I’m proud and honored to say we now have it,” Sue Jones McPhee, fundraising campaign coordinator, said before Thursday’s council vote. “I’m confident we will have exciting news.”

Donations may be made through the project’s website, at www.augustacolonialtheater.org.

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.

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 the theater its home and the Theater at Monmouth would make it its winter home. He said a typical theater books around 170 shows a year, but he’d like to book 270 to 300 a year at the Colonial Theater, with affordable shows.

Parkhurst has 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.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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