Quincy News

Pandemic delays dreams of Washington Theater renovations

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jul. 29, 2020 12:01 am

QUINCY -- For years, Quincy residents and supporters of the historic Washington Theater have dreamed of seeing the downtown theater renovated and restored to a modern-day version of its former glory.

Those dreams, which include transforming the 96-year-old theater into an event center that could be utilized for concerts, wedding receptions, community events, traveling acts, and more, will take a little bit longer to come to fruition due to the continued fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brian Heinze, president of the Washington Theater Commission said.

"(The pandemic) has effected us tremendously. Basically this year has turned out to be a lost year for us," said Heinze, who added that the commission had hoped to raise between $35,000 to $40,000 through a trivia night, a viewing of the cult classic "Rocky Picture Horror Show" ahead of Halloween, and a concert featuring country music singer Jarrod Niemann, who rose to fame in the early part of this decade with songs like "Lover, Lover" and "One More Drinkin' Song."

"We could have made some very serious money to help us with our efforts," said Heinze, who said that with their events canceled they are now hoping for a stream of small donations from local donors to help them continue to make progress.

"We welcome anything. We are not going to be out on the corner panhandling, but every donation adds up," Heinze said. Donations can be sent to Friends of the Washington Theater, 706 Maine Street, City Hall Annex, Planning and Development Department, Quincy, Illinois, 62301. The Friends of the Washington Theater is a recognized 501c3.

A 2006 market analysis and feasibility study by a Toronto consulting firm indicated that the Washington Theater had a viable potential for development as an entertainment complex and community center.

Consultant Janis Barlow told theater commission members then that the theater would fill a niche by providing a space for events seating between 750 and 1,000 people. She also said surveys showed there would be sufficient interest to use the theater for cultural presentations, film exhibitions and rental uses.

At that time, renovation costs were estimated to be between $5 million and $8 million. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to do the same work in 2020 would cost approximately between $6.5 million and $10.4 million.

As of September 2019, the commission had spent $750,000 on the exterior of the theater, including solidifying the building's foundation, installing a new roof, and done general maintenance to the theater that was once a popular destination for traveling vaudeville acts, music groups, stage shows and films. The theater closed in September 1982.

Commission members say no public funds, including tax dollars, will be used for the restoration of the theater. Instead, the theater commission is relying on the group's ongoing fundraising efforts, renting the theater for private events and donations from the public.

"So losing this year has certainly set us back, but not to the point that we are not going to continue pursuing our goal. It is just disappointing because this was the year that we were hoping to raise the money to be able to hire our theater architect," Heinze said.

The Washington Theater Commission continues to be in months-long talks with famed architect Killis Almond, who has been involved with the restoration of more than 70 historic theaters throughout the country.

Among his most recent renovation projects were the Goodwill Theatre in Johnson City, New York; the Sarasota Opera House in Sarasota, Fla.; and the Texas Theater of San Angelo, Texas.

Heinze said once Almond has collaborated with local architects to devise plans to modernize the theater -- adding a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, installing fire sprinklers, updating the electrical wiring in the building, adding restrooms, improving the theater's handicap accessibility and updating the theater's dressing rooms -- then the commission will begin pursuing grants larger than $500,000 to help cover the cost of the multi-million project that will involve the use of local tradesmen.

"When you have someone like Killis Almond and some physical plans with you, then you have legitimacy for your project and that shows that you are on the right track," Heinze said.

In the meantime, Heinze said work on the theater will continue but it will be behind-the-scenes.

Heinze said, "We are not giving up. It is not even an option for us to give up. We are so close and we are going to keep going."