February 25, 2010

Icon gets a face-lift for encore

The State Theater’s owner spends $700,000 on repairs and looks for an operator to start booking shows.

By Matt Wickenheiser mwickenheiser@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND – Plaster satyrs and owls watch silently as workers atop massive scaffolding replace the ceiling in the State Theater.

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A reopening of the 1,500-seat State Theater would put Portland back on the map for touring performers who want to appear in an informal mid-sized venue.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Renovations are under way in the State Theater building on Congress Street, and the owner plans to rent it as an entertainment venue again. The theater has been closed since 2006 after the operator was evicted.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

Those architectural decorations appear to wait for the work to be done, and for life to come back to this iconic entertainment venue.

It has been almost four years since the State Theater closed. Now the building's owner, Ron Goglia, hopes the 81-year-old theater will be hosting shows within the year.

''The big stuff has been done,'' said Goglia, president of Stone Coast Properties LLC, which owns 609 Congress St., the 100,000-square-foot building that holds the State.

Stone Coast has spent about $700,000 for new drywall ceiling, wiring, new bathrooms on the main floor, a new fire escape, new fire doors, a new fire alarm/detection system and other improvements.

Stone Coast evicted the last operator, Maine Entertainment, in 2006, claiming it violated lease provisions. Goglia said the main reason was that the operator continually had problems with fire inspectors over issues that Stone Coast maintained were the tenant's responsibility.

The matter remains in court, he said.

After the eviction, Stone Coast closed the building for renovations, Goglia said.

''I could not open the theater and sleep at night,'' said Goglia.

Portland Fire Capt. Keith Gautreau and Fire Prevention Officer Ben Wallace Jr. have been working with Stone Coast. The theater is ''100 percent better,'' Wallace said.

In the past, fire inspectors were particularly concerned over bathrooms in the basement that had only one exit, and had antiquated wiring.

''The owner is doing the right thing,'' Gautreau said.

Stone Coast still needs a final inspection, but Gautreau said he doesn't foresee any problems.

Goglia said he is still looking to sell naming rights to the theater, and seeking an operator-tenant for the 1,500-seat venue.

''We're looking for someone who has experience, a little bit of money,'' he said.

While Stone Coast has renovated the bones of the building, the tenant would have to invest at least another $150,000 to $700,000 in improvements, including new paint, carpeting, a sound system, kitchen equipment and a point-of-sale system, Goglia said.

Rent would be $9,000 to $15,000 a month, he said.

About 10 possible operators have expressed interest, he said, but only three have adequate experience and the financial backing to be considered.

City Councilor David Marshall, whose district includes the State, said the theater would play a vital role in the neighborhood and the city, as it once did.

''It will give a much-needed boost to that part of Congress Street, which is going through a renaissance right now,'' Marshall said. ''The State Theater would certainly help build on the momentum.''

It would also benefit musicians and music fans, said Sam Pfeifle, the frontman for the Grassholes bluegrass band, a music journalist and the secretary of the Portland Music Foundation, a nonprofit that offers professional development for musicians.

The State was a proving ground for local bands and a venue for them to open for better-known acts, said Pfeifle.

When Rustic Overtones filled the State with 1,500 people, it drew the attention of a record label, he said.

There's a feeling in the city that the late 1990s represented ''the last great age of Portland music,'' he said.

''As the live music scene sort of cratered in the mid-2000s, the last blow was when the State Theater closed its doors,'' said Pfeifle.

Portland's live music scene is on the rebound, he said, with strong venues like the Port City Music Hall, Empire Dine and Dance and the Space Gallery, but there's still a big hole left by the State.

Other venues are smaller, like the 650-seat Port City Music Hall, or more formal, like the city's Merrill Auditorium, which holds 1,800 people.

Groups that used to play the State now skip Portland on the regional circuit, Pfeifle said.

A new operator will need various state and city permits.

One concern is Portland's relatively new entertainment license, which prohibits establishments that serve alcohol within 100 feet of each other from having entertainment licenses.

So far, there isn't another such venue within 100 feet of the State, but that could change, Goglia said.

Marshall, who has opposed the ordinance, said he thinks the council should take another look at repealing it and finding other ways to deal with late-night crowds.

''I can see how the ordinance could put an end to this effort after (Stone Coast) poured in large sums of money,'' he said.

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

mwickenheiser@pressherald.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Dust covers seats in the theater as renovation on the building's plaster ceiling is under way.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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