Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Search of A Downtown Theater

It’s summer, 1993. Downtown Noblesville’s last theater, The Diana, has been demolished at the corner of 9th and Clinton. From her family business across the street, then Mayor, Mary Sue Rowland could view the rubble. No one did more to keep the building standing than Rowland. She understood it was a valuable economic asset, but her city council and the local business community didn’t back her up.

If community leaders could go back and undo that event, they would. In fact some folks are trying right now.

The groups trying to reestablish a theater downtown are as far flung as The Belfry Theatre, Noblesville Cultural Arts Commission, the Hamilton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the City of Noblesville. Proposed locations are varied as well. But it’s agreed a live theater as part of a larger civic center is the vital missing element needed to help downtown realize its full potential.

According to Mark Tumey, board president of Noblesville’s Belfry Theatre, "A part of the Belfry's long range planning is the possibility of relocating to downtown Noblesville.” Tumey says that surveys of both their board and their patrons support such a move.

Tumey sees more than Belfry patrons benefiting. “The possibility of a theater with the heritage of the Belfry's located in the historic downtown area, coupled with local retailers and restaurantswould certainly present a pleasant experience to all,” Tumey says.

The Belfry’s plan is just the first of many stars that will have to align if a theater is to be built.

(At right: The old Diana Theater once stood at the corner of 9th and Clinton. Its demolition by Society Bank in 1993 was opposed by then Mayor Mary Sue Rowland, and the Noblesville Preservation Alliance. Pictured here are a group of newspaper boys standing beneath its marquee,circa 1925. The gentleman in the back, far right is John Wise, Noblesville's main newspaper delivery man from the 1890s until the Great Depression.)

Brenda Myers, Executive Director of Hamilton County Convention and Visitors Bureau also sees economic benefit for other players downtown. “Anything that can drive evening activity to downtown is a plus. And a theater is a good way to do it.”

In fact, merchants and restaurant owners get a little giddy when they imagine several hundred Belfry Theatre goers converging on downtown for Friday and Saturday night shows and weekend afternoon matinees.

Myers’s Visitors Bureau, like an increasing number of such organizations has stepped beyond traditional tourism promotion, expanding into the realm of economic development that can bolster tourism. Partnering in the construction of a theater would be a prime example.

But the goal coalescing around a future theater isn’t simply to house the Belfry and enhance retail sales downtown. It’s hoped such a facility could solve other problems as well.

Christy Langley of City of Noblesville’s Economic Development Department notes that the annual Mayor’s Ball, and the recent Chamber of Commerce 75th Anniversary celebration had to be held in Carmel. “Noblesville needs a place for public functions like that,” Langley says.

Brenda Myers agrees, “Noblesville doesn’t have adequate banquet space. A civic center with a theater could do that.”

(below: the Wild Opera House, which once stood a half block south of the courthouse on 9th.)

Mary Sue Rowland’s interest in a downtown theater didn’t end in ‘93 with the demolition of the Diana. Now, as a member of Noblesville’s Common Council and the Cultural Arts Commission, she’s been pushing to keep a proposed theater on the City’s front burner. Working with the Arts Commission, she asked Darren Peterson of Peterson Architecture to re-imagine another Noblesville theater that was demolished decades ago; The Wild Opera House. (see photo at top of entry)

Peterson’s resulting design shows a new civic center theater in the same 9th Street location that once held the Victorian-era opera house, now a city parking lot.

Rowland has presented the plan to various city committees and it was discussed at the common council’s most recent planning retreat, making the final list of projects the council wants to pursue.

Rowland says, “The vision of the Cultural Arts Commission is a facility that could be a meeting space for 400-500 people for events like banquets and the Mayor’s Ball. And the theater might be a convertible space that could also be used as a dance floor, or winter Parks Department classes.”

Christy Langley summed up what most stakeholders in a potential theater agree upon, “We need to avoid a Palladium-styled project,” (referring to Carmel’s opulent and staggeringly expensive new facility), “and do something that’s more appropriate for Noblesville.”

But a simple reality remains; today the former locations of Noblesville’s old theaters are barren asphalt. Rebuilding a theater on one of those sites will require the commitment of many organizations all working toward the same goal.

(below: Another view of the Wild Opera House. Photo thanks to Dave Heighway.)

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