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SHARON Group puts theater up for sale



Published: Sun, September 23, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



Columbia Theatre Inc. has put $1 million into the building but would need as much as $6 million more for complete restoration.

By HAROLD GWIN

VINDICATOR SHARON BUREAU

SHARON, Pa. -- The group formed 17 years ago to restore the Columbia Theater at 82 W. State St. to its former grandeur says that isn't its primary focus anymore.

Columbia Theatre Inc. said that, after a careful review, it has decided to shift its primary emphasis to being a performing arts organization.

The theater, closed since its entry was destroyed by a fire in 1981, is for sale, the group said.

"It was a very difficult decision," said Pamela Voisey, executive director.

The group tried to find a way to pay for renovating the theater and provide enough revenue to keep it operating but was unable to put a feasible plan together.

"There has not been an avenue that has not been explored," Voisey said.

Part of the problem is that the community support, both from local government and the community at large, just isn't there, she said.

"This is a community project, and if the community doesn't step forward, it doesn't get done," she said.

Financial implications: The last business plan put together for the group showed that it needed to bring in at least 11 touring company shows a year plus raise an additional $120,000 in revenue just to keep the doors open, she said.

The building interior wasn't damaged by the 1981 fire, but years of neglect destroyed much of the ornate interior of the 1922 structure.

Columbia Theatre already has put $1 million worth of improvements into the building, but it would cost between $4 million and $6 million more for a complete renovation, Voisey said.

Just getting the doors open would take $2.5 million, she said.

It took many months and a couple of studies to come to the decision to sell it, Voisey said.

Seeks partnership: "Our first priority would be to find someone we could form a partnership with," she said, explaining the group would like to use the theater as a performing arts center but doesn't want to be the landlord.

There's no interest in selling it so it can be torn down and used as a parking lot, she said.

Voisey said there is no specific cost on the property. The final figure depends on what type of partnership deal Columbia Theatre may be able to work out.

There have been two parties to express interest in the building and in forming a partnership with the organization. The Columbia board of directors has appointed a committee to look at their proposals, Voisey said.

The shift in the group's focus isn't entirely new.

Voisey said the board altered its mission five years ago to reflect what it felt was the current view of the community that programming was more important than the building.

It has built a performance arts program since that time, offering both children's and adult theater, and has had some success, often attracting as many as 700 people to its shows.

The group would like to find a permanent home but it may not be the Columbia, Voisey said.

Beginning in 1999, the group had meetings with state, county and local municipal officials to solicit input into the restoration effort.

When that didn't produce any results, the board of directors decided the building project would be better served by an organization or individuals with the ability and resources to handle restoration and operating and maintenance expenses, the organization said in a prepared statement.

Alternative idea: One Sharon businessman, Glenn Siminick, owner of the Golden Memories jewelry store next to the theater on West State Street, said he and five other local residents have an interest in doing that and believe they can get the state grants necessary to get the building open.

They also have a plan to bring in shows that can produce the revenue needed to keep the doors open in a nonprofit venture, but they don't want Columbia Theatre as a partner, he said.

Nor do they want to pay anything for the theater. Sharon native Tony Butala, owner and member of The Lettermen singing trio, bought the building at a tax sale and gave it to Columbia Theatre in 1984.

It cost the group nothing and Columbia should be willing to turn it over to someone who can get the theater restored and open again, Siminick said.

gwin@vindy.com




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