- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Lofty plans seem to be deflating for a group focused on revitalizing an old theater in downtown Leonardtown. And members of the arts community and the real estate broker representing the building’s owner have conflicting views about how such a revitalization could work.
Friends of the Leonardtown Theater were in high gear in February last year, inviting business owners, elected officials and members of the arts community to learn about their plans to raise funds to revitalize the old theater just off Washington Street on the town square. But a year later, at least two key members of the group have stepped aside saying, politely, that other obligations have taken priority in their schedules and that it’s unclear whether the theater business plan is sustainable.
“We did it for more than a year but there just wasn’t enough people showing up,” said Jim Bershon, a retired periodontist and arts aficionado who has taught film courses in the region. He organized film showings for Friends of the Leonardtown Theater, as the group tried to drum up excitement for a refurbished theater that would show independent and foreign films.
“We continue to plan programming for the spring,” Friends member Kerri Thompson Frank wrote in an email Thursday.
But, Bershon said, the Friends group hasn’t been able to secure a long-term lease for the theater, which he said would have helped obtain grants to refurbish it as part of an arts enrichment project.
Part of the problem was the expense of getting the property up to snuff, some working on the effort said. Berhson estimated that it could cost more than $1 million to revitalize the space.
“I think that’s one reason the building was abandoned for so long,” he said. “It wasn’t well cared for.”
“Hold on just a second. Let me tell you something. If people want an owner to give a place away, they’ll find unlimited problems with a property,” Gordon Stellway, the real estate broker representing the property, said on his way to the building Thursday morning.
“Everybody says it’s going to cost thousands and hundreds of thousands to fix it. They’re full of it,” he said. “I know. I’m the ‘Answer Man.’”
Stellway says he goes to the old theater three or four times a week to improve the space.
“I’ve done more since August than people have done in 15 years,” he said.
So far, Stellway said, he’s been working on structural issues and the entrances and exits.
Other work on his to-do list includes repairing or replacing the roof and gutters, renovating a bathroom, installing a new ceiling, upgrading electric and improving accessibility. He’s thinking the main entry could be through an iron gate off Washington Street.
“Plans are to release the space, hopefully for some type of theater or arts use, consistent with the town of Leonardtown and their goals,” Stellway said. “I will tell you that, yeah, it’s going to cost a little bit of money to fix it up, but it’s not going to cost anywhere in that realm” of Bershon’s $1 million estimation.
“I’m sick and tired of people telling me how bad this place is, because it’s not,” he said.
Stellway is also working to find an occupant for the space where the Cerro Grande Mexican restaurant was before it shuttered, and said he also is making improvements to seven residential apartments upstairs.
“We’ll get it up and running,” he said, “and we’ll rent it for fair market value. And, that’s what we’re going to do. The naysayers ... they’ll be theater patrons, but they won’t be participants in the investment.”
“I don’t really have much to say about whether it’s going to work or not,” said Joe Orlando, a downtown bookstore owner and former theatrical dancer.
Orlando said the Friends group asked him to be on the board because of his connection to the arts community, and because of his leadership in the Leonardtown Business Association.
But, he said the group didn’t have many meetings. And he decided he needed to focus on his other responsibilities.
“I’m involved with too many things as it is,” he said. “But I’d really like to see the theater being revived.”
Bershon said seeing films from other cultures opens viewers’ eyes to what is happening in faraway places. It could offer different ways to look at everyday life, and how people are connected even when they’re worlds apart.
If the theater isn’t resurrected, Orlando said, “I definitely think the community would miss out on something.”
And Stellway isn’t ready to give up on his own plans for the property.
“There’s hope,” he said. “I’m going to be leasing. Mark my words.”