Long-awaited Park Theatre renovation underway

MCMINNVILLE – The sign out front says it all, big and bold, in black and white: “Let the construction begin.” After more than a decade and with the overture of a number of political and financial hurdles, renovation of the historic Park Theatre in downtown McMinnville is finally underway.

And there are high hopes tied to the refurbishment of this former 1930s movie house turned dilapidated office space and, more recently, vacant city-owned structure. After a couple million is spent to upgrade the building – construction is now underway – officials hope the theater will once again serve as a beacon for downtown and spur additional development along Main Street.

But it will take at least a year to get to that point, and at first glance, it might be hard to picture the potential as Park Theatre undergoes extensive deconstruction – as things are uncovered that had been covered up over the years. There’s already a new roof, a planned expansion out the back wall for a stage and the needed restoration of the terrazzo floors and art deco architectural features, among other items. Luckily, the building itself has pretty good bones.

“It’s kind of sat idle for years. It was not in the best of shape,” admitted McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley. “It’s a major renovation. We’re going to have to do all the electrical, all the plumbing, central heat and air. A lot of people say, ‘Isn’t it almost done?’ Well, we only started a little bit ago. We are moving quickly, and so far we’ve had no major glitches.”

“It is a very well-built building for its days,” added Bill Brock, McMinnville public works director, who is overseeing the project for the city. “We were really surprised how solid it is. It’s a great advantage.”

A grand attraction

It was 1939 when the Park Theatre originally opened, and to much fanfare – there was an orchestra from Nashville that performed, red carpet, nearly 2,000 guests. Over the years, hundreds of movies played out on the big screen.

“As a kid, I used to come here all the time,” Brock said. “For a quarter, I could come and spend all Saturday. Come in the morning when they opened up, stay till they closed that evening. Watched movies sometimes twice.”

But there were troubles, too. At one point, a fire broke out in the theater. In 1969, Park Theatre owner Cowan Oldham died. And the ‘80s were especially hard on downtown – as businesses flocked to shopping centers and strip malls. During the week of the county fair in 1986, the Park Theatre closed for good. One report attributes the shut down to a contract dispute.

“It was kind of sudden,” Haley said. “By then, there was a new theater out at the mall…with all the maintenance and upkeep, I guess it was just too much.”

The theater did serve a sort of second life. It was converted to office space. In 2001, a group of concerned citizens, known now as the Park Theatre Group, organized to help save the structure. They wanted to restore it and operate it as a venue for community theater, music performances, workshops, senior activities. Haley said they helped negotiate a property swap between the theater’s then private owner and the city. McMinnville purchased the building in 2002.

“They just saw this theater and saw potential in it,” he said.

A decade later, in 2012, a referendum was put on the ballot to approve a $2 million bond issue to finally rehab the structure – it received 57 percent of the vote. Work started in more recent weeks after a little back and forth with the state Comptroller.

“It was just hurdle after hurdle after hurdle,” Haley said. “It was almost an overwhelming task. A lot of folks expected to walk in and see (the theater) exactly like it was, that we could just throw some paint on it, open the doors and be ready to roll. It scared a lot of people. It scared my board. I want to thank them for being progressive and wanting to make this an asset for the city.”

Haley said the theater will be multi use: weddings, recitals, workshops, music, plays. Possibly vintage movies at some point in the future although that kind of equipment’s not included in the current budget. It should seat about 800. The first version of the theater had about 1,000 chairs.

David Marttala, member of the Park Theatre Group, said they are still working with the city as far as handling the future scheduling and promotion of events. Beyond the economic impact, he said the biggest benefit would be the educational element the theater would bring – opportunities for children to be exposed to theater, arts and music.

“Kids from our community have to go to Nashville or Murfreesboro to get involved in theater. We’d like to bring that here so they can have a lot more exposure to cultural events and the arts,” he said. “We can put together some pretty good programs next year. “It’s been a long process,” he added, “but it’s exciting to see it come together.”

Construction is projected to take a year, although Haley is hoping October is feasible, since that will be the 75th anniversary of Park Theatre’s original opening date. Peter Metts, president of AEI in Cookeville, did the initial renderings. Another UC-based company, W&O Construction, submitted the winning bid for the renovation.

Progress is being tracked via a time lapsed video, and the Park Theatre Group is posting occasional updates on social media. They recently held a “Construction Celebration” event to mark the beginning of the end of a long journey.

“People see promise in this; they can’t wait to see that marquee lit (back) up,” Haley said. “It was like, ‘this is downtown, this is McMinnville, this is who we are. This is what we can be.’ It’s going to be an impetus, I think, to more development downtown and people will be able to create new memories for hopefully the next 75 years.”

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