AUGUSTA — Scrawled on a couple of large sheets of paper stuck to the wall just inside the closed-up, unheated and dusty lobby of the Colonial Theatre are treasured memories.

First dates including at least one that resulted in marriage; weekend afternoons spent watching now-classic movies starring icons such as Bette Davis, Roy Rogers, Charlton Heston and The Three Stooges. Ticket prices of 10 to 75 cents.

The memories were from visitors to the long-vacant theater, left during tours over the summer meant to spur interest in an ongoing effort to raise funds to restore, repurpose and reopen the theater.

But Mayor David Rollins said restoring the theater isn’t just about nostalgia for pleasant childhood memories of days gone by. Rollins said the theater is critical for the revitalization of the city’s downtown, the one big thing that could be done to restore vitality there and in the city as a whole, and something needed to feed what he is confident is a significant unmet demand for arts and culture in the region.

“If we’re talking about being a legitimate city for the next 100 years, this has to happen. That area of the city has to be revitalized,” Rollins said. “It’s not a matter of if we can; it’s a matter of we must. It’s part of a master plan to bring Water Street to new heights, not just where it was. Ultimately, it’s up to us. Do we want to do this, or do we want to stay the status quo?”

He and other city officials didn’t always have such high hopes for the Colonial Theatre, which has been owned by a nonprofit organization since 1997.

Between 2007 and 2011, city officials were approached by at least one neighbor who was concerned that the building, vacant since it closed as a theater in 1969, had become an eyesore attractive only to transients and vandals. Concerns included that its north wall could collapse, loose bricks could fall on pedestrians, there was a massive hole in the floor, and a leaking roof allowed large amounts of water into the structure. Overall, it was a structure so decrepit that for a time the city’s firefighters were ordered to stay out of it for fear it could collapse.

There were various proposals involving private developers, but no solid plan materialized.

When Rollins found out in 2009 that the nonprofit group that owned it didn’t have insurance, he expressed serious concern during a City Council meeting.

“Once we know that, we’re almost obligated to do something about it,” he said. “That fact of the matter is there is no market for that building. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

FUNDRAISING UNDERWAY

Fast-forward to today, and Rollins says the new members of the nonprofit took immediate action to address structural concerns, are raising money for a planned, $8.5 million restoration, and hope to have the theater restored and open in just over two years.

Currently, that group, and efforts to restore the theater, are led by local resident and businessman Richard Parkhurst.

Parkhurst, retired from his family business, O&P Glass, owns multiple other downtown buildings that he has restored or is restoring and converting to high-end apartments on the upper floors, and retail space on the street level.

Parkhurst has volunteered his time to revitalize the theater, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, saying he thinks an active venue will help revitalize the downtown and restore a sense of community in the area.

“What drives me most is I have a thing for old buildings, and I’d hate to see it torn down,” Parkhurst said. “And I think we can help bring back the community, if we have a cultural center here.”

‘DOWN THE RIGHT PATH’

In 2009, Tom Johnson, of East Winthrop, at that time the owner of Capitol Computers, a business next to the theater on Water Street, told city councilors he feared the building was unsafe and should be demolished if improvements weren’t made.

In 2011, the theater was listed on Maine Preservation’s annual Most Endangered Historic Resources list, because the theater “is threatened by deteriorating conditions caused by deferred maintenance.”

Also in 2011, however, the involvement of new people in the theater group had Johnson believing they could save the theater, or that they would at least make sure it wasn’t a safety hazard.

Last year, Johnson showed his support for theater restoration efforts even more by donating a small vacant lot he owned next to it on Water Street. Plans call for it to be used for a new building next to the historic theater that will provide space for bathrooms, a restaurant, storage and accessibility to the theater for people with disabilities.

He said he always wanted to see the theater redeveloped, but the previous owners hadn’t seemed able to get much done with it. Johnson had a business on Water Street for about 32 years, and earlier his father also had a business downtown. Like the people who left messages on the sheets of paper in the lobby, he has fond memories of going to movies at the Colonial when he was a boy. He said his parents would drop him off in the daylight and he’d stay until it was dark.

He said Parkhurst’s involvement in the project has given people confidence that restoration plans will be successful.

“Mr. Parkhurst is a dynamo in terms of being able to make things happen,” Johnson said. “He’s the best thing that could happen to the theater. This guy is the real thing. I think it’s a doable thing. If I didn’t think it was doable, I wouldn’t throw my land at it.”

STRUCTURE SOUND

Rob Overton, a city code enforcement officer, said he and Fire Department officials went through the building about a year ago.

“I’m not concerned about anything catastrophic happening there,” Overton said when asked about the structural integrity of the building. “As far as we’re concerned, the building is in much better condition than it was 10 years ago. It seems like they’re headed down the right path. Richard, he’s certainly proven himself as being able to resurrect these buildings.”

Parkhurst said the building still has numerous problems to be addressed, including fixing the still-gaping hole in the floor. But many of the building’s original featuresremain, ready to be restored.

Parkhurst said the frame of the building was built with steel, in a time when the construction industry didn’t yet know how strong steel could be. He said they erred on the side of making the structure overly stout.

“Everything was over-built. That’s why it survived,” he said.

NEW BUILDING

Restoration plans include a larger stage, a new floor, the installation of box seating in the balcony so blocks of seats could be sold to businesses or families, a new ceiling, a new orchestra pit and a plan to fill the basement of the structure with concrete to prevent water from the Kennebec River from getting in. Parkhurst said a concrete-filled basement will prevent water infiltration and comply with federal requirements for building in the flood plain.

Because the project will be partially funded by state and federal historic tax credits, its renovation must follow U.S. Park Service historic preservation guidelines and is subject to approval by the park service.

One of the biggest additions would be the planned 13,000 square-foot new building attached to the Colonial. Without that, Parkhurst said, it would have been a much more costly challenge to make the building historic theater accessible to all, meeting requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and to provide modern amenities.

The theater, he said, will host a wide range of events, including movies, live youth and adult theater, concerts, orchestra performances, and events held elsewhere with audio and video from them streamed electronically to the theater.

Johnson says he looks forward to attending performances there. He said he’s heard Augusta is the only state capital in the country that doesn’t have a performing arts center, and the restoration of the theater could be the next positive step in what he sees as an ongoing revitalization in Augusta.

“The city has invested in itself quite well, when you drive around you see plantings, trees, urban renewal. There’s the new high school, the new YMCA, the new library,” Johnson said. “If you look at it through the distance of time, this is the next logical step.”

Keith Edwards can be contacted at 621-5647 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kedwardskj