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Augusta's Colonial Theater development seen as an economic driver

BY Maureen Milliken

2/7/2018
Photo / Dave Dostie
Photo / Dave Dostie
In the entryway of Augusta's Colonial Theater, from left, Janet Parkhurst; Sam Tippet, Soo Parkhurst, Michael Hall, Richard Parkhurst and Shawn McLaughlin listen to Phyllis vonHerrlich, of the Kennebec Historical Society. Tippet, Soo and Richard Parkhurst, Hall and vonHerrich are members of the nonprofit's board.

AUGUSTA — The facade of the Colonial Theater downtown looks much like it has for the nearly 50 years since it closed — weather-worn and dingy.
All the action’s on the inside.
“No one going by would know anything is happening,” said Richard Parkhurst, a downtown property owner and member of the theater’s 18-person board, which is in the midst of an $8.5 million renovation of the building at 139 Water St.
This spring, decades’ worth of coal ash will be removed from the basement and the theater’s subfloor will be replaced. The next major job after that, Parkhurst hopes, will be the facade.
“It’s a board decision, but that’s what I’d like to see.”
Parkhurst said the fundraising campaign project will also ramp up. “We really haven’t done any serious fundraising yet,” he said.
Even so, the project that has it roots in 2009 has raised about $3 million, including pledges, donations, grants and tax credits. That includes recent grants of $100,000 from Kennebec Savings Bank, $30,000 from Skowhegan Savings Bank and a $15,000 historic preservation grant.
The city of Augusta has pledged $300,000, left over from the $11 million Lithgow Public Library renovation, once the project makes substantial progress.
The project is also expected to be eligible for more than $2 million in historic preservation tax credits.

The 1913 beaux arts theater was a major draw in Augusta before it closed in 1969. For the next three decades, it was used for storage, but not maintained. Over the years, the roof leaked, destroying the floor. The nonprofit Colonial Theater Inc. bought the building in 1997.
Attempts to interest developers, however, weren’t successful. In 2009, the group took on the project itself.
The building was listed on Maine Preservation’s List of Most Endangered Places in 2011, and on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Renovation began in earnest around then.
Saturday open houses in the summer of 2014 revealed the theater to the public for the first time in decades as an ornate, but crumbling, gem.
At the time, Parkhurst, then president of the theater organization, told the Kennebec Journal, “I feel it’s important to get people in there for them to understand that the building is viable and a beautiful structure.”
The building was structurally sound, but the renovation needs were great.
And there were — and still are — perception barriers.
“We still have a lot of people question whether it’s really going to happen,” Parkhurst said.
Augusta City Council, for instance, approved the $300,000 grant to the theater in October 2016, but won’t issue it until the project is “substantially complete” and a certificate of occupancy is issued.

The project already has the backing of many downtown property owners and developers. Tom Johnson, founder of Capitol Computers next door, donated the vacant lot on the other side of the theater for a 13,000-square-foot addition that will meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, and have dressing rooms, rehearsal space, elevators, and a cafe and art gallery.
Board members include Parkhurst’s son, Tobias, now president of the board, owner of three downtown buildings and a co-owner of Cushnoc Brewing. The board itself is a diverse mix of business owners, professionals, historians and arts leaders, including Andrew Silsby, president and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank.
Beyond the theater renovation, the ultimate goal of the project is to revitalize the north end of Augusta’s downtown and help boost the city’s economy.
The two-block stretch of Water Street that leads to Mill Park, where the massive Edwards mill once loomed, has downtown’s oldest buildings, but also hasn’t caught the momentum of the street’s recent renovation surge.  
“It will vastly improve the north end,” said Michael Hall, executive director of the Downtown Alliance. “There will be a constant stream of people.”
He said the concerts, plays, performances and movies and the people they will draw “will change the perspective of that end of the street.”
The city is also working with the groups that run the Waterville Opera House and Gardiner’s Johnson Hall so that the three venues along the Kennebec complement each other.
He said studies show that for every dollar spent on a project like the Colonial, three dollars is spent by those who attend events there.
“So it’s not only good for downtown, it’s good for the rest of community,” Hall said.

A new roof was the first major project when the renovations began. Richard Parkhurst said contracts are being drawn up for the floor and coal ash removal, which will happen this spring.
Facade work will include repointing, door and window renovations, and a marquee.
The former marquee is long gone, but the new one will be in line with the rest of the theater’s historic elements.
Also coming up soon is a major fundraising campaign and hiring an executive director.
There’s no firm date on when the project will be done.
“I’d love to see it in three years, but I don’t really know,” Parkhurst said. With a building as old and long-neglected as the theater, there are always surprises.
“We don’t know what we’re facing,” he said. “We have a pretty good understanding of the process, but the timing of the process isn’t certain.”
There are some things he is certain of.
“It’s going to be an economic driver for the city.”
When prospective tenants look at his apartments, they tell him they want to be near a good hospital, schools and shopping. But they also want “a cultural city,” he said.
“Augusta needs cultural development,” he said. He said what he hears from those who would like to settle in the area are pushing him to make the project happen.
And what does he say to those who don’t think it’s a project that will work in Augusta?
“My feeling is that people who have negative feelings about Augusta haven’t been to Augusta in a while. I’d invite them down to take a look,” he said. “This is going to happen.”