Robbins Hopes to Restore Old Theater
Robbins is looking for an angel, maybe several of them.
In the theater, an "angel" is the one with the money to make theater possible.
The town has applied for a $300,000 grant that will do a number of things leaders hope will have the effect of more businesses downtown, and consequently more jobs. For appearance, they'll put up a town clock at the apex of "the downtown L" where Salisbury and Middleton Streets meet.
The main hope of the proposal is the restoration of the old Village Theater, presently a gun and antiques business. Its owner not only promised to hold out until the town could acquire it, but he has also signed a legal option to that effect.
David Cheek, who owns the property, has already replaced the roof. His verbal promise was all town leaders needed, but a signed legal option was required as part of the grant application.
Mayor Theron Bell is crossing her fingers, rolling up her sleeves and mounting her well-worn soap box in an effort to save and reopen the biggest old theater in the county. She hopes to find "theater angels" willing to help a project she sees as equal in importance to the Robbins Area Public Library.
"Why on earth would the -citizens of Robbins and northern Moore County need a theater where music, dance and drama could be performed?" she asked. "Why did the good people during the 1930s decide that Robbins needed three theaters? Please note that at least one of these theaters survived to the early 1970s. Why, also, is the Clyde Maness Pottery and Music Barn packed with enthusiastic music lovers every Tuesday evening?"
Bell said the real question is not why, but how.
"How do you become involved in making a vision become a reality?" she asked. "We dream a lot in Robbins, but we also back it up with practicality, hard work and hopes for making our small town a place where children can believe in possibilities. Thirty minutes north of Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen will turn out to be a destination well worth the effort."
By a fortunate coincidence, Robbins Town Manager George Hayfield has already helped one town develop a performing arts center. That was Louisa, Va., where Hayfield worked previously.
"We formed a nonprofit and raised the money to do it," Hayfield says.
The Village Theater's sloping concrete floor rises at the perfect angle for excellent acoustics. Hayfield counted the seat bolt marks in the floors both downstairs and in the balcony to estimate the number of seats.
"Maybe not 1,000 - could be 800 though," Hayfield said.
He checked out the projection booth where a resistance dimmer that once dimmed house lights is still mounted on the wall, waiting for business.
The cost to acquire the theater is $85,000 - by all accounts a small price for a thousand-seat performance hall. The stage has lost its apron, but the stage floor is firm and creak-less. On either side, full two-story wing spaces rise, with doors opening to the stage space on either side at the upper level.
Spur More Investment
Robert Murphrey has been working with Robbins as part of the Small Town Main Street Program through the state Department of Commerce to spruce up and refurbish its downtown.
Noticing a provision gap in common gathering space and resident recreational opportunities, N.C. Main Street and the town collaboratively identified possible sites for revitalization.
One top choice was the old Village Theater, once a movie theater, but one with a stage, wings and under-stage area as well as a large seating capacity including main floor and balcony.
Murphrey recruited Lindsey Davis and Heather Schroeder - two graduate students from the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - to conduct a feasibility study of the theater's restoration.
"This space has the potential to fulfill the town's vision as a place focused on community, culture and knowledge sharing," they said in a draft report presented last month. "Due to time constraints, the team did not complete a market feasibility study, but focused on identifying a feasible way to revitalize the current structure and outline projected costs."
They looked at similar projects in other towns: the Carolina Theater in Spruce Pine, Ansonia Theatre in Wadesboro and Joy Performance Center in Kings Mountain. They examined the present condition and use of the Village Theater in the light of its potential.
The Village Theater at 161 E. Salisbury St. opened as a movie theater. The space has two floors and has an area of 10,000 square feet. The ground floor is currently used for both retail and storage, while the balcony is currently used as storage for architectural and functional remnants from the former theater.
While there is no parking directly in front of or behind the theater, town leaders have suggested that a nearby grocery store and a bank immediately across the street would allow theater patrons to park in these lots after hours.
"A small parcel of land adjacent to a small store at the end of the theater's block could be potentially used for parking and is included in the acquisition price of the theater," the study says.
Temporary partition walls that make separate rooms of the balcony and the space below would be easily removed. The upper level still has its separate outside entrance and second staircase, a poignant echo and a historic artifact of the days of segregation.
"Through the purchase and renovation of the Village Theater, the town of Robbins would be making a direct investment in its public infrastructure," the study says. "However, examples from completed North Carolina theater projects suggest that this public expense would spur additional private investment in downtown Robbins."
Attracting More Visitors
The study considered nearby Temple Theatre in Sanford, which hosts a professional theater ensemble and brings more than 32,000 visitors to Sanford annually, serves more than 5,500 area youth and adds $1.4 million to the local economy, according to Temple's website. It draws audiences from Lee, Wake, Moore, Harnett, Chatham, Cumberland, Orange, and Durham counties.
Goldsboro rebuilt its Paramount Theatre following a fire and reopened in 2008. Goldsboro officials estimate that more than 40,000 visitors attended events at the Paramount in 2009 alone. Moreover, the Goldsboro Downtown Development Corp. directly attributes a large increase in downtown restaurant and business patronage to the re-established theater, the study found.
In Shelby, the city-owned Art Deco style Don Gibson Theatre underwent renovations in 2009 and reopened last October.
"The theater has already resulted in a substantial boost to traffic in uptown and in increased business for restaurants," said Wade Nichols, executive director of the Uptown Shelby Association. "The programming has been very ambitious and routinely attracts visitors from a 100-mile radius, even on snowy evenings."
In Robbins, the N.C. Main Street Market Analysis suggested that "additional niche markets could develop around the through traffic on Highway 705," noting that roughly 3,700 cars travel through Robbins on Salisbury Street each day, along with 2,700 cars per day on Middleton Street.
"Efforts to inform these potential visitors about downtown attractions, goods and services should be expanded," the report concluded.
A new marquee on the Robbins Theater would present a highly visible means for informing passing drivers about local events at the theater and elsewhere in downtown. Moreover, creating a venue for downtown events could capture a portion of this transient market by enticing commuters to stop at the theater - and any spin-off eateries or other businesses - rather than simply passing through town, the study found.
Arts Council Director Chris Dunn toured the Village Theater and went away impressed with its potential and the exciting -possibility of having two spaces in Moore County for the performing arts - the Sunrise in the Sandhills and the Village in the foothills area.
This present grant application may be a long shot, tied as it is to immediate job creation. For a start, Robbins needs only $85,000 to acquire the Village. Then volunteer work could begin and funds from grants and other sources could be sought.
What's needed now are an angel or two to begin the process of making it possible, Hayfield says.
Contact John Chappell by e-mail at email@example.com.
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