Colony project gift

About 100 people entered the Colony Theatre Wednesday morning and emerged about an hour later from the newly christened Peoples Bank Theatre.

Inside, it was announced that in addition to the name change – prompted by a quarter-million-dollar gift from the new namesake – the inside and outside of the theater will soon be transformed and the long-gestating renovation project is expected to be finished in a little more than a year.

“We believe we can start construction in June for a spring 2014 opening,” theater director of development Hunt Brawley announced to applause from theater supporters and local officials.

Peoples Bank’s $250,000 donation is the largest single private contribution to the restoration effort, which will cost more than $7 million. Brawley said the existing bricks and mortar of the building are worth about $9 million, and insurance estimates placed the cost of a comparable new theater around $15 million.

The project is being paid for with approximately $1.7 million in private money, $1.1 million in state funds and grants, $328,000 in federal money and $145,000 in local funds, along with $2.9 million in federal and state historic tax credits.

The association must wait until April to receive about $1.2 million in new market tax credits before going forward, but Brawley said the Peoples Bank donation was seen as the final piece of the puzzle.

The name change was something the board thought long and hard about, Brawley said. Ultimately, it was seen as a way to usher in a new era for the facility, although the collaboration is not a new development.

“Our partnership reached back to the very first production at this theater in 1919, when the bank was a lead sponsor,” Brawley said.

Peoples Bank President and CEO Chuck Sulerzyski said he looks forward to the theater making an economic impact on the community and playing host to major national acts as well as local recitals and high school graduations.

“We strive to make the towns we do business in better places to be,” he said.

The theater can also be used by local and regional groups like the Ohio Valley Opry, the Blues, Jazz and Folk Music Society of Marietta, River Cities Symphony Orchestra, Washington State Community College and Marietta College, Brawley said.

In the past, stars like Boris Karloff, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart and Randy Travis have appeared at the Colony. With a 35-by-55-foot stage and seating for more than 1,000, he said today’s stars and national tours of Broadway productions are expected to be drawn to it as well.

“The Colony will certainly serve as an economic catalyst, not just for downtown Marietta, but for the 10-to-12-county region around (us),” Brawley said before announcing the name change.

Jeri Knowlton, executive director of the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, called the eventual opening of the theater “a game changer.”

“Having the … theater open and providing programming will bring buses back to town,” she said.

Washington County Commissioner David White said he and his wife have traveled to Pittsburgh to see theatrical shows like the Peoples Bank Theatre will be able to present.

“Pittsburgh, Wheeling, Columbus, people go to for shows like that,” he said. “We can have them here.”

Williamstown resident Neil Parsons saw his first movie – “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” – and his first magic show at the Colony and has supported the restoration effort by purchasing a couple of seats to be placed in the theater. He was on hand for Wednesday’s announcement and said he was happy to see things moving forward.

Parsons said he even liked the new name – even if he is in competition with Peoples at his own business, Edward Jones.

“I love seeing the local people support local things,” he said.

The Colony was built in 1911 as the Hippodrome. It moved to its current location in 1919 and was renamed the Colony Cinema in 1949.

A boiler failure in 1980 threatened to close the theater, but Marjorie Bee, a longtime employee, purchased it and ran it with her sons until low attendance and rising heating costs forced its closure in December 1985.

The theater was purchased in 1989 by local businessman Dan Stephan Sr., who hoped to one day see it restored. Now chairman of the Hippodrome/Colony board, Stephan recalled Wednesday the first meeting of the group that would become the association back in 2000.

“We knew it would be a long time when we started this project,” Stephan said.

In 2004, Stephan donated the theater to the nonprofit association and Brawley was hired as the director of development.

Since then, the group has held various fundraisers and worked to obtain money from public and private sources. At one point, Brawley anticipated construction starting in 2008, but the recession helped scuttle a deal for an investor to purchase tax credits. The availability of other funding decreased as a result of the economic conditions, contributed to further delays, he said Wednesday.