City at a crossroads, waiting for direction on historic theater
DANVILLE – Although events are scheduled in the adjacent Palace Park, the Vermilion Heritage Foundation is closing the Fischer Theater and taking a wait-and-see attitude about its future for now.
"The mayor asked for time to examine the potential for city ownership of the building," said John Dreher, board president. "I have not heard back from him at this point."
Volunteer members of the nonprofit board decided in June that, after any scheduled events took place, they would not hold any public events until it becomes clear how future expenses could be met. The board, the city and many in the community are now struggling with what to do next.
Dreher still considers the board to be of two minds: One is to do everything possible to pay the bills and continue to try to bring people in, and the other is to turn off the utilities "because we're only treading water," Dreher said.
Events at the theater barely cover expenses.
"We have to face that making $500 to $600 a whack doesn't cover our expenses – utilities, taxes and insurance," he said.
Dreher also believes the community is growing tired.
"I don't fear people saying we failed," he said. "I just don't want people thinking the theater is less than what it should mean to the community, that it's just that old thing that's been around forever and isn't going anywhere."
Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said the biggest issue for the city to consider is the structural stability of the building. Good or bad results will affect insurance rates, stop-gap efforts and the ability to use the building.
"We will have to have a structural engineer examine the building, but even the cost of an analysis will have to be considered," he said.
Eisenhauer, who served as president of the Vermilion Heritage Board before becoming mayor, said he is "willing, wanting and interested in assisting with utilities and general maintenance, but the city can't accept any responsibility if the building is not structurally sound."
The city also must meet its duties if there are significant structural issues, including denying a certificate of occupancy, Eisenhauer said. And taking on the building would be contingent on fundraising efforts.
"Will it become the cornerstone of the downtown we have always believed it to be? Or is there no hope of raising the money necessary?" Eisenhauer said. "This is a critical crossroad, not just for the city or the foundation, but for the community. Are we willing to support this project? If so, what is the vision for its completion?"
Now's the time for the community to step forward and make the commitment to the Fischer Theater renovations, volunteers say.
"It's time to stop sitting around the coffee shops talking about the what-ifs and move forward with a vision, a detailed plan and a commitment to raising the money necessary to complete the project," Eisenhauer said.
He is not willing to look for the money to make the building structurally sound without a demonstration of community support. He suggests an updated feasibility study to determine renovation costs for the completed vision, reorganization of the governing board, writing a detailed business plan, and a fundraising plan for construction as well as future operation.
Board member Sue Beck has been both a financial supporter and a tireless volunteer at the Fischer. She views a restored theater as a quality-of-life issue that would appeal to prospective industry.
"The arts should be out in front of what makes a city a wonderful place to live and do business," Beck said. "I believe it's truly part of what makes companies come or stay in an area."
Beck maintains that restoring the theater isn't about just another place to entertain people. It also would create jobs during restoration and in the restored theater.
Dr. Sean Mallady, owner of Chittick Family Eye Care, looks out his business' front window at the theater every day.
"We chose to stay here in the downtown in hopes the restored Fischer Theatre would be a part of our view," Mallady said. "We took a vintage theme when renovating our business to coordinate as an entryway into the downtown because of the theater.
"Danville has proven over and over that we can do so many things, but people have to know there is a plan," he added. "Not only is the city owed the answers to the feasibility of the project, but the 'savers,' the potential donors need to know what it's going to take.
He added that Danville's already lost some of its architectural history.
"If the Fischer is the crown jewel, we need to really get behind the project and make it happen," he said.
Attorney Dick Doyle was president of the Vermilion Heritage Board when the first structural studies showed severe problems in 1997 – and when the board had a $400,000 bank balance.
"I'm certainly not criticizing where the board finds itself today, but they have spent the money and are left without the means to do anything else at this point," he said.
Doyle said it will take a fundraiser of "monumental proportions" to save the theater but wonders if such a campaign is possible. The theater has never received the backing of other larger campaigns, he said.
Raj Karinattu is the only original Vermilion Heritage board member still active. She has sold tickets, organized spaghetti dinners and sold seats for the renovated theater, supporting any effort she could. She said it's going to take more than that to make a difference.
"We've been nickel-and-diming it. I still think we need someone influential with ties to the community to head this thing," she said of fundraising. "People with influence and affluence is what we need."
Ward 7 Alderman Steve Foster has fought for it as an alderman and a Vermilion Heritage board member. He doesn't see the project as one for the preservationists or the artistic community alone.
"The finished theater will appeal across all lines of the community and, hopefully, regionally," he said. "The theater needs to be preserved – even if it's for another group to come along at an appropriate time and finish the job."