LACONIA — "A game changer" were the words most often heard following the announcement this week that the Colonial Theater, dark since 2001, would be renovated and reopened as a civic auditorium.
The Belknap Economic Development Council (BEDC) and City of Laconia have partnered to acquire the theater, together with the commercial and residential units on the lot at 609-621 Main St. and during the next 18 months arrange a financial package of $15 million to renovate the entire property, a project expected to be complete by Christmas 2018.
Randy Eifert, president of BEDC, said that when the agency decided to invest in redeveloping distressed property it considered several buildings downtown, but chose the theater, concluding that its renovation and reopening would have the greatest impact.
Jack Dugan, executive director of the Monadnock Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), recalled the experience of Keene where the revitalization of a theater — also named the Colonial —was the first step in the recovery of downtown. Describing the theater as "the centerpiece," adding: "... it is one of the first places we bring people. It's a selling point."
Dugan said that the theater, owned by a nonprofit corporation and operating 364 days a year, enhanced the value of other distressed properties and when the MEDC redeveloped two other buildings, "the momentum began to grow and private developers began to invest." Describing the theater as the "centerpiece," he said that downtown, with its specialty retailers and numerous restaurants has become "a third place where you're not at home or at work but comfortable when you're hanging out."
The construction of what Dugan called "high-end condominiums and rental units," has drawn affluent empty-nesters and young professional families to live within walking distance of downtown. "Success will build on itself," he remarked. "The snowball effect is amazing."
Russ Thibeault of Applied Economic Research explained that in the past downtowns were anchored by department stores which were then eclipsed by several generations of even larger, often discount retailers operating outside city centers where parking was plentiful. Theaters, or cultural and artistic centers, he said, have become the anchors of revitalized downtowns, not only in Keene but also in Concord, Portsmouth and Lebanon, where they have spawned boutiques , cafes and restaurants.
City Manager Scott Myers stressed the assurance that the Colonial Theater would not only change hands but also be restored and reopened within a specific period of time. He said that this signals there are attractive opportunities for potential investors, particularly in the current environment before interest rates and property values have begun to rise.
Myers noted that even before the announcement Charlie St. Clair invested $315,000 in acquiring the former Bloom's Variety Store at the corner of Main and Hanover streets that houses the Laconia Antique Center, and brothers Mark and Chris Condodemetraky bought the Piscopo Block at the corner of Main and Canal streets for $392,500.
These transactions came on the heels of the opening of the Holy Grail Restaurant & Pub on Veterans Square, which marked a major investment in the conversion of the former Evangelical Baptist Church and coincided with the renovation of a rental units on Main Street to house Wayfarer's Coffee Roaster, which opened this week.
John Moriarty of the Main Street Initiative, who purchased and rehabilitated 600 Main Street, has been associated with efforts to acquire and restore the Colonial Theater for years. He recalled that the late, Paul Normandin once reminded him that "it is not fair to think of the Colonial as savior of downtown Laconia. I realize other things have to happen," he continued, "but, renovating and reopening the Colonial will overcome a perception that has overshadowed downtown." He believes that "others will discover what savvy people have known, that downtown Laconia is intrinsically valuable and under-priced."
"It's a beautiful situation that will generate some positive momentum," said Kevin Sullivan, an agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial Weeks Associates, who owns property downtown. He called the Colonial Theater "the highest profile property in the entire downtown corridor" and said that the prospect of its renovation should increase interest in vacant space along Main Street and raise the value of nearby properties. "There is a positive buzz going around," Sullivan remarked.
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