By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
What do you think should become of Goshen’s historic downtown theater?
Over the past couple of years, many questions have been raised about what should be done with the more than 100-year-old theater. Should it be restored? Is it too expensive to maintain? Should it just be torn down and turned into a parking lot?
Goshen Downtown Inc. in mid-2011 received a $35,000 grant from the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Fund to conduct an architectural and feasibility study for the historic building to try and determine the best answers to those and many other questions related to the theater’s future.
The year-long study, unveiled this past December by members of the Goshen Theater Task Force, was initially brought on by the fact that the church organization that currently owns the structure is looking to transition ownership.
Myron Bontrager, pastor of the Downtown@808 church, which meets in the theater, has said for the past few years that he would like to see an ownership transition happen soon, and preferably into the hands of a local non-profit that would be able to support and maintain the historic site for the enjoyment of future generations.
“I think there is going to be a change of hands at some point,” Bontrager said. “That’s always what we’ve been working toward. Over the last couple of years, with the feasibility study, and even before that, as a church we’ve always wanted the theater to be used as a gathering place for the community. And as time went on, we really began to look at and pursue the option of releasing the theater to another organization that could accomplish that goal more easily and tap into some of the available funds out there for these types of venues.”
Through the study, several potential business plans and possible uses for the theater were evaluated with the end goal of helping to nail down exactly what the theater will be used for in the future. Some of the primary goals identified included restoring the exterior of the building as well as allowing for the expansions of public areas and spaces needed backstage for performers.
In addition to the primary goals, several secondary goals were also identified which could help bring the theater up to its full potential. Such goals included expanding the lobby into the neighboring storefronts, working with the attached Menno Travel building to appropriate some of the rear of that building to create backstage space, redoing the front stonework and installing an elevator.
All together, total cost for the proposed theater renovations was determined by the study to be around $7.6 million, with an operating budget post-renovation projected at approximately $400,000 per year.
Even with proposed revenues and contributions helping to meet that cost, the study noted that any group operating the theater would most likely need some sort of assistance to make ends meet, whether that be through a grant program or additional financial support.
“The way this would probably work is a not-for-profit of some sort would eventually be formed to take ownership of the whole movement of what happens with the theater,” Bontrager said. “How and when that will happen is a little bit up in the air right now. But I really think anybody’s dream is still up for grabs right now. I think there are a lot of things that could happen with it.”
According to Gina Leichty, co-chair of the Goshen Theater Task Force, task force members are currently working hard to find a viable long-term solution for the continued operation of the Goshen Theater.
“The theater is at a transition point right now,” Leichty said. “We completed our feasibility study, so we know now what it would take to renovate the theater, and we have a business plan to operate that once the renovation takes place. So the next step is to find out the financial feasibility.”
Along those lines, Leichty said the group is currently conducting research to see what resources might be available in the community and also at the state and federal level to get the funding needed to complete the ambitious project. And, as Bontrager mentioned, the task force is working under a bit of a ticking clock, so time is of the essence.
“There are some real threats to the theater right now,” Leichty said. “The current owners are ready to end their operation of the theater, so we have some immediate needs that we need to address just to keep it operational. So we may be looking for some short-term funding just to keep the heat on and the doors open.”
In the meantime, Leichty said the owners will continue to manage the building and host events, though likely in a much reduced capacity moving forward.
“They will still be managing the building, and there will still continue to be some events there and things like that,” Leichty said. “But I do anticipate that there will be significantly fewer events at the theater until we can find an alternate solution.”
That said, Leichty was quick to note her continued optimism regarding the future prospects of the historic downtown structure.
“I think we have good reason to be optimistic,” Leichty said. “People have been very supportive of the theater for a long period of time, and the research we’ve done has shown that there is a need for a theater like that. So I think there certainly is a market for the theater. It has been the cultural centerpiece in Goshen’s downtown since 1907, and we want to make sure it stays that way for another hundred years or more.”
While the task force is currently focused primarily on getting its financial feasibility study completed, Leichty said it is also her hope in the coming months to continue to solicit community input on the future of the theater, though exactly how that will shake out has yet to be determined.
“I don’t know exactly what format that will take at this point,” Leichty said. “Right now we’re just focusing on getting our fundraising feasibility study done so we’ll know where the funding is coming from. As we dig deeper, we’ll have a much clearer idea of what resources are available moving forward.”