Robbins Explores Possibility of Historic District
On Wednesday afternoon, state and county officials paid a visit to Robbins to explore the possibility of a historic district and to see what it would take to restore the old Village Theatre.
A private, nonprofit group is looking to reopen the theater as a downtown draw. The idea is to use on-stage attractions to entice a flood of visitors and boost the local economy, springboard shops and stores, restaurants and other businesses.
Jessica Dockery, a national register and survey specialist with the state’s Historic Preservation Office, was very upbeat about the possibility of a historic zone designation for midtown Robbins.
That could open the door to tax credits and other incentives for business owners.
“All that is involved would be the fronts of these buildings,” she said, looking down Salisbury Street to the corner of “the downtown L” at Middleton Street. “Property owners would have to take off these wood-shingle awnings, for example. They wouldn’t have to do a lot.”
Robbins will soon own one former magnet store building, the old Ray’s Department store right on that corner. Its owner is donating it to the town. That will take it off the tax books for a time, but many members of the town board expect it to return to private ownership and renewed life once essential repairs make it safe.
Tim Simmons, a senior preservation architect and federal rehabilitation tax credit coordinator also with the agency, and Jeff Adolphsen, a restoration specialist, joined Dockery in a tour of the old theater building and a walk through downtown Robbins.
Jean McSwain is on the nonprofit foundation that now owns the theater. She showed as-built drawings and suggested restoration designs and took the visitors on a trip through the building from the old projection booth to backstage and beyond. Its separate entrance and stairway to the formerly segregated balcony are historic relics and visible reminders of the South’s racist past.
Moore County’s code enforcement office officer, Brian Terry, looked over the building to see what would need to be done for to meet code requirements. Its zoning designation with the municipality was never changed from use as a theater, and no such change was ever sought.
Whether unofficial, perhaps illegal use for other purposes would affect code requirements could be “a grey area” Terry said. He was sure the county would help Robbins.
The Village Theatre is not town property, according to Mayor Theron Bell. It never has belonged to Robbins and no town funds paid the cost of buying it last year. Those funds came from the N.C. Rural Center by way of a STEP grant with Rural Center approval required for any use.
The money — $85,000 — was to go to this project as one way to build future jobs in the economically hard hit former mill town area. Over three years ending in 2010, Moore County had the fifth biggest spurt in people living below poverty level of any county in the country, according to a Census Bureau report last week.
“Robbins does not own this theater,” Bell said. “It is owned by the Village Theatre Foundation.”
That being said, she and Town Manager George Hayfield expressed the hope that its restoration and return to life would help the town. He has had experience with such projects before, having worked with a small town in Virginia that did the same thing with its old theater.
A count based on peg holes in floors where rows of theater seating were once fastened showed the old theater once had upwards of 800 seats, well more than double the seating capacity of the Sunrise Theater in downtown Southern Pines.
“As long as the balcony area is a third or less that of the downstairs part, it wouldn’t be considered a second floor,” Terry said. “It wouldn’t have to have handicapped access, elevators, if it is not a second floor.”
There would need to be a ramp or lift for handicapped access to the stage itself, according to federal law, he said. However, it could be outside or in back of the building. New bathrooms, equipped to meet current standards, are already in the planning stages for members of the nonprofit board, McSwain said.
There will be more meetings with code and fire officials as that board works to make its plans and seeks to raise needed funds for the restoration. In the meantime, a historic district for old Robbins seems a real possibility.
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story