ABOVE: In his vintage usher outfit

Year in Review No. 3: Civic Theatre reborn

This year saw the great debate over the Nelson Civic Theatre. Should it reopen as a cinema or become a multi-purpose athletic club?

Part of the Star’s look back at the top stories of 2012.

At the start of the year, things looked bleak for Nelson’s Civic Theatre. Closed for more than a year and in a state of chaos after a would-be operator failed to complete renovations, it didn’t look like anyone was willing to clean up the mess.

But then a group stepped forward with a creative plan: the Gravity Climbing Centre lost their longtime home when their building sold. The squash club was also looking for new digs. They teamed up on a proposal to turn the theatre into a multi-purpose sports facility, dubbed the Nelson Downtown Athletic Club, which would have squash courts, a climbing gym, and other space.

“We’re both struggling to find permanent homes,” squash club vice-president Pat Hodgson said. “We think the Civic Theatre fits the bill perfectly.”

Although he knew the city’s preference was to keep the Civic a movie theatre, he pointed out their idea was at no direct cost to taxpayers. They pitched the idea to council shortly before it put out a formal request for proposals. But while the club received positive feedback, movie buffs weren’t quite ready to give up.

“Our family loves movies,” said Cindy Sherry, who spearheaded a last-ditch effort to save the theatre. “I was very frustrated with having to drive to Castlegar to see a movie when we have a theatre here.”

Sherry began gathering support for a non-profit society to screen films. More than 60 people turned out for the initial meeting in April.

“It was getting down to the wire so somebody had to come forward and draw all those romantic film buffs out of the woodwork,” Sherry said.

Local artist Josh Wapp collected signatures in a bright red usher’s uniform. “I thought this might get some attention,” he said. “The response has been overwhelming.”

The group received over 4,000 names in two months.

By the May 31 proposal deadline, the group had examined a business model and the renovations required. They pegged start-up costs at $430,000, to be paid through society memberships, sponsorship drives, donations, and grants.

The city gave the group four months to do a feasibility study — but that put the Downtown Athletic Club in a difficult position.

“We are certainly disappointed with the route council decided to go, but not necessarily surprised,” Pat Hodgson said.

One business owner used stronger language. Ed Olthof told council he was “appalled” with their process, which he felt was predisposed to one outcome. But city manager Kevin Cormack explained the athletic club proposal was “unsolicited” — and the request for proposals was for a movie theatre only.

By the time the theatre society submitted its fleshed-out proposal in October, it had raised $27,000 through the sale of over 1,200 memberships.

It presented two options to re-open the theatre: start with a single screen and add two more later or spend more time and money to start with two screens and then add a third. The society’s preference was the latter.

Both had a price tag of $2.7 million, but the society explained that was a high-end estimate, and it could be done for less using volunteer labour.

Soon after, council signed a letter of intent to lease the space to the theatre society.

“I think [the society] did a great job,” said Mayor John Dooley. “It was a very thorough plan and clearly council and I feel they deserve an opportunity to make it work.”

The society says the first film could be screened as early as February using the old projector and sound system, following a massive clean-up this month.

“We recognize the community would like to see things sooner rather than wait for a full renovation so we’re figuring out how to do that,” said president Anne DeGrace.

An official open house will take place in January after more work has been completed.

“The thing about the theatre is that it’s for everybody,” DeGrace said. “People have really fond memories of the Civic Theatre. It’s always engaged people and been part of their lives.”

The Downtown Athletic Club, although frustrated the city didn’t give their proposal equal weight, applauded the theatre group’s efforts and has been looking at other options.

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