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Editorial: Theater project a good deal for the city

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An artist's rendering of planned renovations at the Uptown Theater.

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

An oft-heard complaint related to Greenville’s purchase and sale of the old Park Theater downtown is that the city does not need to be in the real estate business. We agree with that. The city needs to be in the business of building its tax base and improving the quality of life for its residents, and that is what it has done with the sale of the Fifth Street property on Dec. 21.

The Redevelopment Commission purchased the 1914 building in 2008 for about $280,000 utilizing general obligation bond funds approved by voters in 2004 for improvements to the downtown area. It sat on the market for more than 10 years after Carmike stopped showing $1 movies there. It was in pretty bad shape even in its dollar days; by the time the city bought it, it was an eyesore.

The deal the commission has worked on with Community-Smith Development since 2014 is expected to pay dividends well beyond the asking price and what the city has put into the building since then. The city stabilized portions of the structure, including walls and a tower in the back used to maneuver and store sets and backdrops for stage shows.

It also incurred costs, including $6,000 for a study on possible uses for the building, associated with previous attempts to develop the property before Community-Smith came to town and began developing other projects that have since proven successful in the city’s ongoing revitalization efforts.

As part of the discussions with Community-Smith, the city agreed to more structural and remediation work totaling about $340,000. The negotiations were the topic of multiple public meetings over the course of many months, with final decisions that were subject to votes by the commission and the City Council, the latter of which resulted in 4-1 splits. The process has been covered extensively in The Daily Reflector.

The city plans to pay for final improvements with $175,000 in grants from the Eastern North Carolina Brownfields Coalition and another $165,000 from City Center bond funds. It also will make improvements to an adjacent parking lot to accommodate tour buses and delivery trucks for the theater and surrounding merchants.

In exchange for a total city investment in the neighborhood of $600,000, CommunitySmith agreed to pay the city $20,000 for ownership of the building and invest at least $1 million of its own money on the project. It signed a contract to have the facility up and running by March 31, 2018, and operate it as a live performance venue for 10 years. It intends to rent the theater to Raleigh-based Lincoln Theater, a successful venture that brings a variety of live shows to that town.

The process, which does call for continued oversight, will save a historical building — one of too few remaining that reflect Greenville’s tobacco-town heritage — bring residents a performing arts venue they have wanted for years, and significantly increase the value of a structure on the property tax rolls. This is a far better real estate deal for the city than allowing the old place to rot or condemning it and razing it altogether.

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