By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Since 1913 the Robinson Grand Theater has had a presence in Clarksburg, and in 1927, it was one of only 13 theaters in the entire United States to have sound! Ensuing years brought a destructive fire to the structure … then repairs and a reopening … and later closure, leaving the building basically dormant for many years now. That is about to change, however. Clarksburg city leaders are passionate about bringing it back to life – a “grand” life!
Thus far, environmental asbestos abatement has been completed; interior demolition of adjacent properties the City recently acquired has been done; and the State Historic Preservation Office has approved the plan for restoration of the exterior and renovation of the interior. Renovation is currently out to bid for the project and the goal is to have construction commence in January of 2017. In addition, the City is now seeking a director who will oversee the operation of the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center and promote its mission.
Although it seems like lots of movement taking place, all of these decisions have taken time and a great deal of planning and research. Several years ago, a survey was conducted over a nine-county area through a combined effort of Bridgeport, Clarksburg, and the Harrison County Commission. The survey’s purpose was to determine what people saw for the future of the neglected Robinson Grand Theater. The majority strongly supported the concept of a cultural and arts center within the area. Clarksburg City Manager Martin Howe says that the programming that is planned for the new “grand” performing arts center will not only meet but exceed those needs!
This is NOT by any means a small undertaking, nor is it an inexpensive one!
“The City is funding the project utilizing 2016 Series A sales tax and revenue bonds. We have also made application for Historical Rehabilitation tax credits which consist of state and federal tax credits,” Howe stated. “Those combined credits will equal approximately three to five million dollars. And we are attempting to secure what is called ‘new market tax credits’, which could equate to an additional three million dollars. With the recently acquired properties as well as various consultants to strategic planning and construction, the total cost will be around $15 million dollars.”
Howe emphasized that this is a regional project, saying, “We feel strongly this will have a positive impact on the entire region! ALL municipalities within the county have endorsed and supported the project by means of resolutions of support, and the Cultural Foundation of Harrison County is also playing a vital role in this; they are accepting, managing and disbursing the donations received through our capital campaign. We have also made a request to the County Commission for financial support and are awaiting that decision. But the entire area will be positively affected by this project.”
Howe noted that the natural beauty that abounds in the state is a wonderful drawing card for tourism in West Virginia. There are numerous offerings for outdoor activities … now this will bring something unique to north central West Virginia … an additional option offering expansion for arts and entertainment features that will enhance the quality of life for the people who live here as well as another reason for travelers to visit here.
“The Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center will open a lot of doors from an economic standpoint. People attending events here will need hotel accommodations, they will be dining in restaurants, shopping, buying gasoline, etc. Regional businesses throughout the county will benefit,” Howe added.
Great programming will help this occur! And that will be one of the responsibilities of the center’s Executive Director, who will begin marketing and programming well in advance, take care of public relations, fundraising, and every aspect of the facility.
What kind of entertainment will be engaged? Howe says the facility will offer a variety of entertainers – from pop/rock to bluegrass to country to gospel … and yes, even comedy.
“We plan to host plays, musicals, recitals, movies, art exhibits, receptions, concerts, and there will be an opportunity for art and acting classes, partnering with the Boards of Education from surrounding counties for field trips, etc. We have already been in contact with the WV Symphony, Mountain Stage and various colleges and universities about performances … and, with the capacity to seat 950 patrons, we’ll be able to host national headliners!”
Howe said the City met with 20 organizations long ago when initial planning began to discuss the broad use of the venue. They consulted a number of local community groups, performers and schools to gather their input, and have tried to accommodate the needs they expressed throughout the design process.
“This has been a long and involved process. We have reached out to a former CEO of the Clay Center in Charleston regarding operational planning. To assist us with the development of operations, we reached out to the WV School of Theater and Dance. We have dealt with the WV Division of Culture and History, the WV State Historical Preservation Office and the US Dept. of Interior, and a number of other experts regarding funding and financing of the project,” Howe explained. “We have sought good advice within different disciplines – design, finance, operational planning – to utilize their knowledge and expertise. We never wanted to just change the name and slap some paint on an old theater! We have consulted with professionals to do it right and truly make it “grand” again!”
From an economic standpoint, City leaders commissioned the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research to study and report on the economic impact the project would have. Their conservative report said the Robinson Grand project will result in a $32 million impact in the first five years and that for every dollar spent in the Robinson Grand, there would be a 50% return through economic activity in Harrison County. For example, a ticket to a show costing $50 would bring an additional $25 spent within the local economy.
What are some of the details of the new planned facility? It will encompass 44,656 total square feet. The exterior will be completely restored, refurbishing a lot of its existing architecture. Inside, there will be a new concession area … all new stage rigging, curtains, lighting, sound system and orchestra lift. Add to that a high definition projection screen, all new dressing rooms, an 1,800 square foot multi-purpose banquet room, caterer’s kitchen, circular bar, three new elevators, a shop/prop room, a loading dock that will accommodate semi-trailers for loading and unloading equipment for larger productions, and the list goes on.
Howe said the City has already received multiple inquiries about using the facility for wedding receptions! “The second level will have a ballroom with capabilities to be utilized for meeting rooms, banquets and receptions. The nice thing about this is that more than one event can be going on simultaneously because each will have its own separate access,” he noted.
This is a very busy but very exciting time for City leaders in Clarksburg! Howe said he takes a great deal of pride in this project in his hometown and is proud to be involved with it.
“I speak for all of the members of our management team, the design team and our capital campaign team when I say that there is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and passion emanating from all the people involved in this project,” Howe concluded. “We have attempted to think in advance and prepare well in every aspect of this project. It will truly be state of the art and we are anxious to watch it develop into something our area can be very proud of.”
Despite the enormous amount of detail in this restoration and renovation, it is estimated that the project will be complete in just 14-16 months. So if things move along smoothly and they begin in January of 2017, they anticipate a soft opening of the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center in the Spring of 2018! Then in the fall of 2018 as the formal season begins, they foresee having some headlining entertainment for the GRAND opening of this historic landmark!