After more than 40 years of being shuttered to the public, the Aztec Theater — a downtown Shawnee landmark — is on the path to entertaining the masses once again.
The Shawnee City Council decided Monday to sink $250,000 of Economic Development fund money into the project to help three local businessmen with the rehabilitation project at 11119 Johnson Drive.
After about an hour of hashing out details from the dais, council members were generally delighted to finally reach an agreement to bring the old theater back to life, and the crowd that packed the chambers and hallway was also in a festive mood.
“I am so proud of this project. I cannot be happier,” said Mayor Michelle Distler.
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The 90-year-old theater is enough of a landmark that its image turns up on a Google search of Shawnee, but it has been used as a storage area for years. Council members said they hope the theater will start a domino effect in redevelopment, linking the Nieman Road improvements to downtown and bringing people out in the evenings.
“It’s long just been vacant and decrepit and falling apart from the outside. I think it’s been a symbol of where we’ve lagged as a city where it comes to our downtown,” said council member Brandon Kenig.
The city struck a tougher deal with developers Aztec Theater Group LLC than the group originally asked for two weeks ago. The city cut the amount of its contribution by half from the amount originally asked, and wrote in some clawbacks in case the project falls through and the property has to be sold again.
The agreement just beats the deadline for developers Jeff and Christopher Calkins and Bruce Young to finish their deal to purchase the theater from owner Wade Williams. The group was to pay Williams $250,000 for the property.
The developers will come up with their own money for the purchase and start-up operating costs. The city money is for restoration costs, which are considerable given the building’s age.
The new arrangement means the group will have to rely more on fundraising and help from the community, but Jeff Calkins said it will still be doable. Reopening the Aztec has wide community support, and many people have offered donations of money and labor, he said.
“We’ve had a huge influx of people who are wanting to help,” he said. “I almost like this plan better because now it seems like a community project.”
The purchase price is just the beginning, for the theater has not opened its doors to the public since the mid 1970s. Extensive rehabbing will be needed on the 300-seat, single-screen structure to bring it up to code and make it functional. The group had asked the city for $500,000 for that part of their project.
Council members were reluctant to part with that much without some assurance the city would be reimbursed if the plans fell apart and the building was sold.
The new deal sets a three-year deadline for completion. If the project isn’t completed by that time, the developers are must reimburse the city for its contribution.
There are some additional protections for the city in case the theater fails or the owners decide to sell. For instance, the owners would have to pay the city back if the theater ceases to operate for more than six consecutive months. That payback ranges from $50,000 to $200,000, based on the year.
The city also has the right of first refusal to buy the theater and its assets if the owners decide to sell.
The Aztec Theater was known as a movie palace when it opened as the Mission Theater on Sept. 5, 1927. It showed silent films and “talkies” and had occasional live entertainment as well. It was part of the Dickinson theater chain until it closed in 1974, and still carries the “Fine Arts” marquee.
Now that the project is approved, Calkins said he’ll get to work fundraising. His timeline shows rehab work beginning next month with the grand opening slated for April, 2018.