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Lynchburg City Council approves $2.3 million for Academy Theatre restoration
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Lynchburg City Council approves $2.3 million for Academy Theatre restoration

Only $5 for 5 months

A decades-long desire by some for a renovated Academy of Music Theatre may be nearing its final act.

Lynchburg City Council approved a plan Tuesday that would provide the theater’s owner, the Academy of Fine Arts, with $2.3 million to be paid over a four-year period. Combined with $1.2 million that may come from an Industrial Revitalization Fund grant and a required match from the Lynchburg Economic Development Authority, a request made by the theater’s owner for a $3.5 million contribution from the city would be fulfilled.

Academy representatives approached City Council in August with a request for a contribution of $3.5 million from the city that would go towards the renovation of the circa-1905 theater. The academy is undergoing a $16.6 million fundraising campaign and has raised nearly $10 million. The Academy plans to finance the remainder through a combination of historic and New Markets tax credits.

Councilman Randy Nelson said it’s clear the renovated theater stands as a gateway to the city and will generate substantial economic benefits.

“It is very reasonable and appropriate that the city preserve and promote this very highly visible building for future generations and we encourage the programs that will enable it to be available for decades, if not centuries, to come,” Nelson said.

Nelson recommended the city contribute $2.3 million to be comprised of $500,000 per year for three years from money dedicated for implementation of the downtown master plan and $200,000 per year from the city’s tourism budget.

The remaining $1.2 million would be made through a $600,000 grant from the Industrial Revitalization Fund and a required match through the Lynchburg Economic Development Authority. City Council approved an application to the Industrial Revitalization Fund grant in September, but the city has not yet received notification as to whether the application was successful.

“In the event [the grant] does not fulfill itself, then we come back and look at it again based on the facts that exist at that time,” Nelson said.

Earlier in the meeting, City Manager Kimball Payne said a concern was whether the city should have an equity stake in the project, but the city having an equity position in the property cannot be pursued because of restrictions pertaining to the historic tax credits. To provide some type of guarantee, city staff proposed a covenant in which the Academy could not transfer for a period of 35 years any interest in its properties to third parties who will not use the properties as community arts and cultural centers without the city’s written permission.

Nelson recommended the term limit of the covenant be extended to 50 years.

Councilman Ceasor Johnson said the renovated theater is a “lasting legacy” and made a motion based on Nelson’s recommendations.

“I think this is a great opportunity for us to make a commitment to the arts,” Johnson said.

Councilwoman Joan Foster said the project makes economic sense not only for downtown Lynchburg but the entire city and Central Virginia.

Councilman Jeff Helgeson voted against a motion in August which required city staff to research funding opportunities for the Academy’s request. During Tuesday’s work session, he said he appreciated the Academy’s passion and vision but cited council’s earlier support for a loan arrangement through the EDA for $5 million in gap financing to the Virginian hotel project, which he said was “millions of dollars that could have possibly gone to this project.”

“I will be the first at the door buying tickets, waiting to see the first production,” Helgeson said. “I know it will be fabulous, but we’ve got to look out for our taxpayers.”

Councilwoman Treney Tweedy spoke of the theater’s segregated past and said it now is time for the creation of a “new history” in which the theater will move forward with “diversity and inclusiveness.”

LNA 10112015 Academy Theatre-5

The Academy recently asked City Council for $3.5 million to use toward the renovation of the Academy of Music Theatre in downtown Lynchburg. The theater has been out of use since the 1950s. (Autumn Parry/The News & Advance)

Councilman Turner Perrow said he struggled with the decision but while he is committed to the project personally, he cannot justify making the expenditure. He added perhaps the city can assist with infrastructure, such as ensuring the upcoming downtown streetscape project in the area of the theater be “absolutely perfect when it comes into fruition.”

“Like I told Mr. Dawson this morning, I’m going to personally pledge to commit to the capital project, but I can’t commit city dollars.”

Ultimately voting in favor of the project, Mayor Michael Gillette said he agreed with Perrow that it should be an analytic decision and not one based on emotions. He said he’s analyzed the numbers, and believes it’s reasonable to think the city would have a return on investment in the form of the $1.5 million in tax revenue the Academy projects the city would receive over a 15-year period.

The motion passed with council members Jeff Helgeson and Turner Perrow opposing. The vote was met with applause from Academy supporters.

LNA 10112015 Academy Theatre-3

Academy Executive Director Geoff Kershner takes a tour of the Academy of Music Theatre, long a subject of fund-raising efforts for restoration. (Autumn Parry/The News & Advance)

“This for us is a great boost, and it provides us legitimacy, too, as we move forward,” said the Academy’s Executive Director Geoffrey Kershner after the meeting. “It’s a vote of confidence.”

Councilman Jeff Helgeson voted against a motion in August which required city staff to research funding opportunities for the Academy’s request. During Tuesday’s work session, he said he appreciated the Academy’s passion and vision but cited council’s earlier support for a loan arrangement through the EDA for $5 million in gap financing to the Virginian hotel project, which he said was “millions of dollars that could have possibly gone to this project.”

Contact Sherese Gore at (434) 385-3357 or sgore@newsadvance.com.

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