Old Town Theater could become retail space

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Old Town Theater could become retail space
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By Susan Hale Thomas (File photo)

Einstein apocryphally said the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result. And after three attempts to run a theater have failed in the 100-year-old Old Town Theater building at 815 1/2 King St., owner Rob Kaufman is ready to move on.

“When I originally purchased the property, I had intended it to be a retail store,” Kaufman said.

But outcry from residents inspired Kaufman to restore the century-old property to its historic glory and keep it as a venue for the arts.

Although residents and Kaufman initially were happy with the transformation, the honeymoon was short lived. The theater struggled to attract a following, so Kaufman shuttered the venue in October 2013, parting ways with erstwhile comedy club promoter Tom Kennedy.

“We’re not getting a great deal of support from Alexandria and the question becomes can we? And the other question [is] have we had the right programming to entice Alexandrians to the theater? It’s not one answer, but maybe a little bit of both,” he said at the time. “As much as I don’t have a history in the theater business, I understand Alexandria very well. I felt the venue was not hitting the target.”

Kaufman later reopened the theater, but the business continued to struggle. Last July, he again closed the theater in search of a new direction.

“We’re just getting fall and winter organized,” Kaufman said. “My feeling was let’s just stop and reorganize and then bring it back … the way I’d like to see it.”

But the theater never reopened. In October, word got out that Kaufman’s company, PMA Properties had put the venue up for sale and was auctioning off sound and kitchen equipment.

Kaufman said he wants to keep the building as some form of arts or entertainment venue, but he has had little luck in finding a qualified buyer.

“One group misrepresented itself financially and was not able to do it, so I shut them down,” Kaufman said of one suitor for the property.

Kaufman acknowledges there are people out there with great ideas, but he says few have the finances to support them.

“I’d like to put a theater-oriented business in the building, and if someone wanted to buy the theater, I would try and preserve it,” he said.

Kaufman is in the midst of negotiations with a party interested in purchasing the theater. But since the deal is still in the works, he said he could not provide any details.

“But I’m not certain if these people are going to come through,” he said. “There’s no guarantee. In the event this fails, I’m on the path to make it retail.”

In the mean time, Kaufman has applied for a special use permit that, if approved, would allow him to increase the floor area of the building for “retail, restaurant or other service oriented commercial business.” The request proposes to remove the first floor stage and auditorium seating to connect the two existing floors, essentially flattening the existing slope of the theater floor.

On the second floor, the permit requests an expansion of the second floor balcony/mezzanine area to create a full second floor for retail space. There are no plans to alter the exterior of the building. The existing “Old Town Theater” marquee and the tile floor of the lobby will be preserved.

Old Town property owner Boyd Walker, who led the original push to encourage Kaufman to restore the theater, said he was disappointed by the news, although he understood the tough business climate.

“It’s very hard to run a for-profit arts venue in downtown,” he said. “It’s not as profitable as a multiplex cinema.”

Walker fears that if the venue is converted to retail, the building will never return to its original purpose. But a nonprofit theater group might fare better than a traditional business.

“I have suggested to the city manager that the city purchase the theater,” Walker said. “I think only a nonprofit will work. If they could find a nonprofit to operate it, it would be of economic benefit to the city and the theater could really bring the community together.

“If the theater is converted, it is never going to return to being a theater.”

The plan will be reviewed by the city planning commission at a public hearing February 3 at 7 p.m. at City Hall.

Erich Wagner contributed to this report.

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