AUGUSTA — The ideas came fast and furious for the future role of the Colonial Theater on Water Street.
The unoccupied building, which showed its last film in 1969 and then spent some two decades as a warehouse, was the subject of a visioning session Thursday at a Water Street gallery of the University of Maine at Augusta’s Gannett Building.
Developer Richard Parkhurst has thrown his support behind the project, as has the Augusta Downtown Alliance, the nonprofit Colonial Theater Inc. and people who have worked for years to try to rejuvenate the building, which backs up to the Kennebec River.
“We need to know what the downtown needs for a cultural center,” Parkhurst said. He offered a few ideas and talked of working with such organizations as Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville, Johnson Hall in Gardiner and the Theater at Monmouth, among others.
“There’s plenty of room, and with a collaborative effort we can all thrive,” he said.
The gallery’s walls held enlarged black-and-white photos of the interior and exterior of the theater in its heydey, with lights on the marquee and horses standing outside.
The building appeared in danger of being razed back in 1999 and has been the subject of prior renovation efforts that stalled.
The ideas for new occupancy and use included turning it into a concert or symphony hall, a wedding venue, a dinner theater, an art gallery, a planetarium, an independent film theater, an IMAX theater, a lecture hall, a conference center, an exercise class site, a gallery, a recital hall, a comedy club, a burlesque site, a site for local country and bluegrass performers, dance space, and possibly the site of a radio show that could be named “Kennebec Home Companion.” The suggestion of live theater brought up the issue of wing and back stage space and a mention that while it was built as a movie theater and had some 1,277 seats, it lacked a large stage. However, organizers said they could make changes.
Many of the suggestions included adding an elevator, and a coffee house space in the lobby that might offer alcohol later in the evening.
Ed Coffin, a former city councilor, said E.S. Coffin Engineering & Surveying, which he formerly owned, volunteered to determine elevations of the lobby floor and stage and compare it to the federal flood maps so organizers could make an educated decision about how to proceed.
“That is the crucial thing at this moment.” Coffin said. “You can’t plan without it.” Parkhurst promised him a key to the building on Friday.
A number of people said they wanted a peek inside the building. Parkhurst said that when he moves his office in there in early spring, they can get a tour.
Parkhurst said the work is expected to cost $3 million to $6 million and will require three to six years.
“The first work has to be structural, so you won’t see a lot happening the first season,” he said.
He said he has talked with Coastal Enterprises, which said it could help develop a financing plan and perhaps 30 percent to 40 percent of overall cost.
“One of my goals is to have the structure end up debt-free,” he said.
“Did anybody solve the problem of parking?” Jon Silverman asked. Later he said, “Whether it’s 700 or 1,200 seats, if it’s painful to get to from the car to the theater, it will fail.”
Steve Pecukonis, executive director of the Augusta Downtown Alliance, said parking would be taken into consideration since it would not make sense to build something to which few people could get access.
An offer to run a ferry boat to the back of the building brought smiles from many of the 45 people in the audience and prompted a suggestion to connect the theater to the river and perhaps host environmental programs.
Lori Larochelle, of Augusta, kept reminding people, “All these things need to raise money to support the building.” She also said there were a number of buildings downtown that could be used to take the overflow events.
Along with suggestions to make seating flexible and mobile came ideas about beginning to market it and to do a photo and video documentary of the process of rehabilitating the structure.
Parkhurst said the intent is to restore the exterior and completely renovate the interior. He said his former firm, Oakes & Parkhurst Glass, now operated by his children, committed to donating windows and doors.
Chris Selwood, who lives across the street from the theater, suggested doing exterior work as soon as possible.
“Right now it sits there, and nobody sees anything going on,” Selwood said. “More people will get interested because they see something’s actually being done.”
Kathi Wall, who at one point ran Capital Kids’ The Edge, a popular teen center on Water Street, suggested building a stage atop a new marquee that could be used for mini- or teaser performances, similar to what she saw at some theaters in England.
“We need people to help us make this go,” Pecukonis said. “It is a very small board right now.” He said the Colonial Theater Inc.’s board of directors and officers’ terms expire Feb. 28 by design, and the group is hoping to attract new members.
He asked people to get involved and to email him with suggestions at [email protected] He also said he would organize the ideas offered Thursday and post them on that organization’s website in about two weeks.