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Live Performance Venues Coming to Greenville

by Brittney Melton
Guardian Intern

White's Theater at its opening in 1914.  Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

White’s Theater at its opening in 1914. Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with special thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

Plays, concerts, spoken word and motion pictures may soon be viable entertainment choices in downtown Greenville since the January 15 city council meeting  in which councilors voted unanimously to amend the zoning ordinance allowing “live performance theaters.” [Edit: The ordinance was referred to Planning and Zoning for further review at their February 17 meeting.]

“…Theaters are more than just plays and spoken word,” said Merrill Flood, Director of the city’s Community Development Department. We’re likely to see live music, motion pictures and private banquets at these venues. Unlike many of the places that are already located downtown, theaters will not allow for dance parties, outdoor or televised events.

Live performance isn’t completely new to downtown: it was once allowed, but sometime during the 1990s, according to Flood, it was no longer a permitted use in the area. When Carmike Cinemas developed in town during the mid-1990s, they purchased all the small theaters in town–with deed restrictions to avoid competition attached.

City planners expect multiple venues to come forward, but there’s one in particular involving the renovation of a historic property in the heart of the district: White’s Theater on 5th Street.

After years of unsuccessful attempts to revitalize White’s Theater, the city and private partners have finally come together to restore the 100-year-old building. The City of Greenville Redevelopment Commission purchased the theater in 2008. In 2010, the commission conducted an architectural study, estimating restoration costs at $2.5-$3 million. Current projections have the renovations estimated lower: at or under $1.5 million.

“The original (2010) plans were to build a high-end state-of-the-art theater for plays and musical theater,” Carl Rees, City of Greenville Director of Economic Development Development and Revitalization. The new plans are geared toward musical performance, which is less costly, and historical preservation of the outside of the building.”

Revitalization Plan

In 2006, the City of Greenville, collaborating with citizens, created the Center City-West Greenville Revitalization Plan, a document intended to combine economic development and historic preservation in the oldest part of the city. [Some links on the City of Greenville’s website were inadvertently decommissioned in their recent transition to a new website, according to city planner Tom Wisemiller, who assures us that the links for the Revitalization Plan will be in place by the end of the week. We will update the article with the link at that time.]

State Theater. Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

State Theater. Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with special thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

Redeveloping White’s Theater was an original part of the city’s Revitalization Plan as an effort to give citizens a downtown that’s more than a place to work from 8-5. “People want to live, work and play in a close-knit environment,” Flood said.

Since the Revitalization Plan came into effect, Flood has noticed a “period of massive change.” Flood said of the area now active with shoppers, business people and residents, “Downtown used to be a bit of a ghost town after 5.”

Though immediate attention is to White’s Theater, other theaters are already being imagined. Dickinson Avenue, Tenth Street and Evans Street were mentioned as considerations for live performance venues during the November 4, 2014 Redevelopment Commission meeting. East Carolina University also has plans to build a three-story, 200,000 square foot visual and performing arts center downtown on Reade and First Streets, where the Willis Building is currently located, according to their master plan (2012).

Revitalization is a slow process according to former Greenville Mayor and current Redevelopment Commissioner Patricia Dunn, and it is a process “…we have been working on this for many years and we will continue to work on it.” Dunn attributes the downtown revitalization needs to the effects of people having moved their homes out of the city into suburban housing developments and their businesses into shopping malls outside the inner city.

Economic Development
Compared to other urban areas in North Carolina such as Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham, Greenville is limited when it comes to entertainment. In February 2014, East Carolina University conducted a survey to determine how a theater downtown would best serve community needs. Of 1,420 participants, nearly 87 percent said they leave town for entertainment. Nearly 64 percent leave town because the entertainment they want is not available here; 60 percent want greater diversity.

87 percent of people travel outside of Greenville for entertainment because there just isn't enough here.

87 percent of people travel outside of Greenville for entertainment because there just isn’t enough here.

It is not only residents looking for entertainment. Businesses considering locating in Greenville care about these sorts of “quality of life” opportunities, according to Rees. “For companies that are looking to come to Greenville they are looking for a lot of things.” Among those things are an educated workforce qualified to do the work, and enough recreational and entertainment opportunities to meet the needs of that workforce. Businesses want to locate in places that are inviting.

The city may be doing it right: In July 2014, business magazine Forbes ranked Greenville 27 in a list of the “Best Small Places for Business and Careers.” Cultural and recreational opportunities, along with job growth, business and living costs, income growth and educational attainment are among the criteria considered, according to their report on methodology.

More entertainment opportunities (both in quantity and diversity), job growth and a relatively low cost of living is what may attract business professionals, a group Flood calls ‘young talent,’ to stay in Greenville after graduating.

“You live in an urban environment where you don’t have to rely on a car as much because you can easily walk to the things you want to do – to shopping, to dining, and even to your job,” Rees said. “We are very interested in having more people living in our downtown area, not just students but young professionals.” This is just the sort of environment many recent college graduates want to enter, according to an October 2014 article in the New York Times. “… As young people continue to spurn the suburbs for urban living, more of them are moving to the very heart of cities,” reports Claire Kain Miller, “– even in economically troubled places….”

City and Community Partners

Photo from "Theater Uptown" Facebook page.

Photo from “Theater Uptown” Facebook page.

Flood, who has brought the idea of a live performance theater before several of the city’s boards and commissions, has had to explain the difference between a theater and other performance venues such as public and private clubs. A theater sells tickets for entry, while a club has a cover charge. The “live performance” aspect is a major distinction since clubs rely primarily on recorded music.

There are some places downtown that host small musical performances. Dunn said these venues are subject to the same noise ordinance as anywhere else in the city. Performances at a theater would be larger affairs.

In addition to clarifications on venue types, Flood and Rees have both spent time explaining the business model. “We are looking at a public/private model where we bring in a private sector operator,” Rees said. The operator hired will share the vision for diverse acts and will have control over day-to-day operations such as booking and scheduling events.

The October 7, 2014 Redevelopment Commission meeting minutes report that the city selected CommunitySmith’s bid to partner in developing and operating White’s Theater. This is not the first partnership between the city and CommunitySmith, a private firm specializing in revitalization: they are behind the transformation of Fifth and Cotanche Streets, a project known as the “Superblock.”

“The operator we’re working with is Lincoln Theater, out of Raleigh,” Holton Wilkerson, CommunitySmith Managing Partner, said. “They would be responsible for all day-to-day operations.” Lincoln Theater was an early pioneer in downtown Raleigh, one of their most established music venues featuring top acts in a variety of genres from around the world.

On being selected as the project’s developer, Wilkerson said that CommunitySmith didn’t so much win a bid, “…but rather were one of two respondents to a ‘Request for Information’ by the City and Uptown Greenville. We essentially made a proposal as to why our team was the best fit.”  The second respondent, Magnolia Arts Center, withdrew their bid, according to the October 7 Redevelopment Commission meeting minutes (above).

Wilkerson said a limited liability corporation would be formed and Lincoln Theater would lease the theater space from that LLC.

“Lincoln Theater is very excited about this market,” said Wilkerson. In addition to their business running a theater, they have experience working in college towns like Durham and Raleigh as a production company. They have booked bands to play at venues in Greenville before, including Wilkerson’s own college band.

The Lincoln Theater recently helped host the “Wide Open Bluegrass” festival, presented by the International Bluegrass Music Association and featuring world-class musical acts. There is possibility that they will contribute to something like that in Greenville, Wilkerson said. They are also excited about the being part of the mainstays of Greenville, like PirateFest.

What’s Next?

State Theater photo from Images of Greenville. Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

State Theater photo from Images of Greenville. Credit: ECU Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, with special thanks to Candace Pearce and Roger Kammerer.

White’s Theater, just like any 100-year-old building that has sat dormant for nearly 16 years, has some challenges. You can pretty much see right up through the roof, Wilkerson said. There have also been some environmental issues, but the city has managed those proactively. The building will be reconstructed, including the roof which is going to be ripped off, rebuilt and put back on.

Preservation will be an important part of developing the property. White’s Theater, according to Roger Kammerer and Candace Pearce’s 2001 Images of America book on Greenville, was built in 1914 by Samuel T. White, became known as the State in 1930 and the Park in 1973. Wilkerson says the theater may revert to one of its former names, though it has not yet been decided. “What we have been calling it the whole time is the ‘State Theater,’” he said.

“We hope to have the building done in the next 18 months and open,” Rees said.  This may be the main attraction for live performance and music after this ordinance is passed, but Rees believes it will not remain the only live performance theater in this district, as new venues will be attracted to the area.

The theater should seat 300, with standing room for more. If all goes according to plan, Greenville residents and visitors will have at least one new entertainment option by Fall 2016.

Brittney Melton is a Senior year Communication major at ECU studying Journalism with a double major in Merchandising.

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