Armory one step closer to becoming a theater

This article can be found published on the Daily Local News‘ website and the Main Line Media News‘ website.
Uptown! Entertainment Alliance has raised over half the money it needs to turn the old National Guard Armory in West Chester into a theater for film and live performances. From left: Richard May, Leslie Telthorster, Jimmy Jefferis, Roy Smith, Tom McEvoy and Angela Scully. (Candice Monhollan)

Uptown! Entertainment Alliance has raised over half the money it needs to turn the old National Guard Armory in West Chester into a theater for film and live performances. From left: Richard May, Leslie Telthorster, Jimmy Jefferis, Roy Smith, Tom McEvoy and Angela Scully. (Candice Monhollan)

WEST CHESTER — What started as just a statement one night amongst friends over drinks has now turned into a mission which has just become one step closer to reality.

Tom McEvoy, president of the Uptown! Entertainment Alliance (UEA), and Richard May, UEA treasurer, were commiserating over the loss of a theater in downtown West Chester back in the 1980s when they decided it was time to change that.

“We thought, ‘Let’s stop whining and not stop until we have a theater,’” McEvoy said. “It will be five years this summer that we started that. It has been a long process with lots of hurdles and stages that we’ve set for ourselves.”

The UEA, a nonprofit volunteer group made up of area residents, after research and numerous conversations with professionals, set a goal to raise $3.75 million to buy the building for the theater and then preserve and repurpose the building.

… [Please continue the story on the Daily Local News website by clicking here.]

Though the initial plan of using the old courthouse fell through, UEA board member Jimmy Jefferis pointed out the perfect spot — the old National Guard Armory which sat empty on North High Street.

“I was one of the few who was in this building before as a little kid,” Jefferis said. “I had my taste of having a great night here when I was a kid. The real Aunt Jemima was here for a performance and I saw that and I remembered that.”

The armory, built in 1916, was home to the National Guard’s Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

The 10,900-square foot building has been vacant since the approximately 170 troops of the Pennsylvania National Guard moved into the new Coatesville Readiness Center in Sadsbury in 2013.

The plan is not to demolish the building or even drastically change it.

In fact, that’s the last thing UEA wants to do.

“We definitely want to restore it,” McEvoy said. “We didn’t want to tear this thing down and start from scratch. We love the idea of saving buildings in West Chester.”

But finding the building was two years ago.

Now, UEA has raised an astounding $2.2 million in its efforts to convert the armory into a theater — all before they’ve even technically gone public with any sort of sign.

“The idea that this came from four friends and we’ve now raised $2 million for it says something powerful about the idea and the concept,” said Angela Scully, development director for UEA. “It’s so clear that there is a need for this. It’s such a unique opportunity to take this building and really recreate that community space.”

Right now, UEA doesn’t own the building. The board is currently waiting on zoning approval before they go ahead with the purchase.

“We’re going to go through the Smart Growth Committee,” McEvoy said. “They want to see our plan in the May meeting and if it’s approved, it goes to the Borough Council and hopefully they approve it. They will basically advertise what we’re doing, so if people have any objections, they can raise those objections. If everything goes smoothly, we should have the zoning by July — knock on wood. We really want it by that date.”

When the time comes that UEA gets the approval it needs, then it will immediately green-light the contractor it already has lined up.

“The contractor has been terrific,” McEvoy said. “His comment was, ‘We have a plan. Once you say go, I can have it done in nine months.’”

Though the original schedule has been pushed back slightly, it hasn’t deterred UEA in the slightest.

In fact, the new date set for opening the theater happens to be quite perfect.

“How appropriate if we open our doors as a theater in 2016,” May said. “It would be 100 years. It just has some sort of special synchronicity about it.”

For the UEA, they’re excited not only for the prospect of bringing a theater back to downtown West Chester, but it would also accentuate the cultural aspect of the borough even more.

“What we’re working on with the borough is the creation of a cultural-use overlay district, which would encompass not only this building, but the historical society and maybe some other buildings in the area,” said Roy Smith, one of UEA’s board members. “Part of the idea is that this now will develop a cultural district basically on each end of the borough with (West Chester University) with the Bull Center and Asplundh Hall and the other performing arts center.”

The armory couldn’t be in a better location as well, with it being within a couple blocks of the main streets of West Chester and a parking garage and parking lot.

Though the UEA has gone past its halfway point in raising the funds, it is continuing to try and generate more money through contributions, it also created Uptown Bravo Theater, LLC.

“We realized early on it would be unlikely that we would be able to do it with contributions alone,” May said. “We decided to involve a for-profit entity in the ownership of the building, which will entitle the investors and we’re hoping for $1.8 to $2 million of invested capital to get tax credits — historic, federal tax credits on rehabilitation expenses that we’re undertaking. We have investors as well as donors that are combining capital to do the project.”

For the time being, UEA will put the money raised toward getting the building up to code and making it a place for the community to enjoy a show and worry about the ‘bells and whistles’ down the road.

“The goal is we want people to walk in here and really feel like the space is beautiful with great acoustics and really comfortable seats,” McEvoy said. “That’s where we’re putting our money first. People who are designing the acoustics and our lighting are one of the leading theatrical design people in the world. That part will be fantastic.”

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Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Community

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