Paramount breaks ground- finally

For well over a decade— maybe two decades— people have been trying to save the Paramount. Supporters of the historic theater will finally break ground on its long-awaited restoration, renovation, and expansion project March 1. Coincidentally, this comes just two weeks after another major theater project, the City Center for Contemporary Arts (3CA), announced its plans for a titanium and concrete art palace one block to the south.

While the 3CA folks are working with a $3.7 million budget, the Paramount people have a $14.4 million budget, of which $10.5 million already has been raised. But in 1993, the price tag for restoring the Paramount was only an estimated $6.6 million. What happened? 

Chad Hershner, executive director for the Paramount, says architects hadn’t been hired when the last cost estimates were made. “We’ve done a lot of serious planning in the past three years,” he says. “The scope has changed tremendously.”

The former movie theater, built in 1931 and closed in 1974, will now be more of a community center than a theater, says Hershner. Besides the cost of renovating an historic building— ripping out the old seats and removing asbestos and lead paint— the project entails excavation underneath the building to create dressing rooms— in addition to demolishing an adjacent building with two shops on the Downtown Mall. That space will become the site of a new three-story structure containing meeting rooms and a hardwood-floored rehearsal room, as well as extra lobby space with a computerized box office.

Hershner envisions the Paramount as a center running the gamut of the arts. “We will not produce in-house shows,” he says. “We’ll bring in professional groups or allow local theater groups to rent space.”

Are the two concurrent campaigns scrambling for the same donor dollars— as well as the same audiences?

No, says Hershner: the two venues fill different niches. He calls the two new arts projects “a cultural renaissance.” He notes that Live Arts artistic director John Gibson once remarked that Charlottesville is on the verge of creating a “theater district.”

Thane Kerner, chairman of fundraising for 3CA, who a decade ago lambasted an earlier Paramount board for allegedly over-rosy attendance projections, seems to think the community can handle the ostensible abundance.

“At first blush,” says Kerner, “you may think there’s two theaters. We’re very different in nature, yet complementary.”

Kerner describes the Paramount project as one of historic preservation that will be renovated for a variety of uses— and not focused on self-produced events, as is Live Arts. “These two projects will cement the arts.”

Unlike the 3CA, which prides itself on its independence from government funding, the Paramount has accepted over $1 million in public grants ($500,000 from the City, and approximately $300,000 each from the County and state). And it’s received one gift that keeps on giving: a perpetual property tax abatement.

“We wanted to be a public/private partnership,” says Hershner. “The Paramount is such a vital part of the region, it’s going to be an economic generator for the City and surrounding area.”

The Paramount invites the public to join its groundbreaking festivities, which include not only a drawing for a $500 downtown shopping spree but also the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange performing the “Bobcat Ballet” featuring small bulldozers popping wheelies. 

The construction will take 16 to 18 months, and Hershner says the theater-cum-community center should be ready for its grand re-opening in fall 2003.

And for those who’d like to be a part of the Paramount’s future, a $250 donation will put your name on a brick in the entrance to the theater. For $2,500, you can get a seat in a prime area of the theater with your name laser engraved and painted gold. For $25,000? There’s a place in the coat check suite for two donors’ names.



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