Tale of two cities: It’s worst of times for Paramount theaters

The theater’s seats have been empty for years. The Paramount sign has been removed from the front of the building. The fate of a once grand theater has been sealed; it awaits only the arrival of the wrecking ball.

Oh, and the scene is in downtown Chilliwack, a city of 68,000 in British Columbia, about 60 miles from Vancouver and 2,600 miles from Youngstown.

It may be small consolation, but Youngstown is not the only city that has found it can’t save every landmark. Both cities are on the verge of losing their Paramounts.

And Chilliwack had some advantages over our city. The building was much newer; the Chilliwack Paramount opened in 1949. It had been abandoned for a much shorter time. The last movie played Nov. 3, 2010. And Landmark Cinemas of Canada quickly donated the building and land to the city, giving Chilliwack a possibility of saving it. There was even a public spirited group, “Friends of the Paramount” that tried to raise the money to preserve the building as a community theater.

Perhaps the biggest difference was that Chilliwack Paramount didn’t have a pipe organ to be stripped before it was abandoned. And most of the seats were in good condition, allowing the city to offer them to nostalgia buffs in four-seat lots. Oh, and while Chilliwack was given its Paramount, Youngstown had to pay $80,000 for the dilapidated structure it must now tear down.

The final reel

And tearing Youngstown’s 94-year-old theater down is really the only option remaining.

Youngstown received a grant from the state last year of $803,490 for demolition, with the expectation that the building’s elaborate terra cotta facade would be saved, perhaps to serve as an amphitheater. It was an intriguing proposal, which would have preserved part of a landmark while leveling a huge asbestos- and mold-filled auditorium that has long been past the point of salvation. But those hopes were dashed when Atlantic Engineering Services, a structural engineering firm with an office in Pittsburgh, estimated that it would cost between $1.3 million and $1.6 million just to secure the facade during demolition of the remainder of the building. Even then there was no guarantee that the facade could be made structurally sound.

And so the city expects to advertise for demolition bids late next month. Chilliwack expects to pay about $350,000 to take its Paramount to the ground. Youngstown should be so lucky.

The Youngstowners who called themselves the Paramount Project were wrong about the feasibility of saving the facade, but they were right about wanting something more than a nondescript parking lot on a historic corner in the center of a downtown that is being revitalized.

A public-private effort to turn that part of the site fronting Federal into a mini-park has merit. But the private effort would have to be a substantial part of the equation. There is a critical need for demolition of abandoned structures throughout the city — structures that are safety hazards and that jeopardize the stability of neighborhoods. They must be given priority.

Abandonment takes its toll on structures and neighborhoods — as 36 years of abandonment proved for the Paramount and Downtown Youngstown.

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