What’s next for the 90-year-old Studio Theater in downtown Middletown?

Middletown officials are accepting a final round of project proposals for the historic Studio Theater, hoping to save the building that has strong emotional ties for many in the area but that is now gutted and a drag on nearby structures.

Three previous tries have not produced a viable option for redeveloping the 90-year-old theater building. The price tag to redevelop the building could reach $5 million, and if no viable plan is accepted by the city, the building could face the demolition that was originally scheduled for 2009 before lack of funds postponed it.

The city acquired the title to the 30,000-square-foot Studio Theater property in 2014 and has sought a redevelopment partner three times in 2016 and 2017. City officials said the former theater has continued to deteriorate and is causing water infiltration damage to the adjoining buildings and businesses.

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“We’re giving a last effort to redevelop the Studio Theater,” said Jennifer Ekey, Middletown economic development director. “There’s a lot of emotional attachment for it because it means something to a lot of people.”

Ekey said that last spring the city received two responses to redevelop the Studio and only one proposal was viable. Two engineering firms performed assessments of the structure and its potential for redevelopment.

Both firms said in their reports that rehabbing the theater portion, basically removing the roof and leaving an open venue, was going to be an involved and expensive project as the cost estimate increased from $1 million to $1.5 million to a potential of $3 million to $5 million, if the wall height wasn’t reduced from 40 feet down to 12 to 16 feet.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” Ekey said. “…. This is a $3 million to $5 million project. It’s not something you can do for several hundred thousand (dollars).”

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She said one bidder did not meet the minimum financial requirements, and the other withdrew its proposal after the engineering reports came out.

The engineering reports also indicated that the theater marquee is in danger of being disconnected from the structure and needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

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Inside the Studio

According to local historian Sam Ashworth, the downtown theater opened as the Strand Theater in 1929 and had 1,800 seats and closed in 1959. It was remodelled and reopened July 16, 1964 as the Studio Theater with seating capacity reduced to 1,000 seats.

The theater closed on April 24, 1984, but the office space on the second floor continued to be occupied until 1988. The building been vacant ever since.

“When I got here in 1964, the Paramount was already torn down so the Studio was the place to go,” Ashworth said. “It had been renovated and reopened. I don’t remember specific movies but it showed the first run films of the day for families and those dating.”

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The inside of the former theater is gutted with debris on the floors and the roof with a number of open holes.

Although it has been vacant for more than 30 years, Ekey said the city paid $15,000 to resolve a roof remediation issue that was requested by the owner of the Liberty Spirits building next door. She said in the past few months, a new issue regarding water damage has developed, and the neighboring property owner is seeking remediation of the latest water issue in the range of $35,000 to $50,000.

In the proposal document released Wednesday to open the submission window, the city said there were two demolition options: demolish the entire structure, or demolish the rear (theater) and keep the facade on Central Avenue, which would enable saving the office area and first floor retail space as well as the facade on Central Avenue. City officials are willing to consider for a complete rehab of the 30,000-square-foot structure.

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Ekey said that due to safety and nuisance issues and cost of the additional remediation, the city is considering demolishing the entire site. In the proposal documents, city officials said if there are no viable proposals, they will move forward with demolition of the property immediately after the proposal process is completed. The cost of demolition was estimated at $350,000, officials said.

“We have to balance community development with economic development,” she said.

Hoping to save a historic structure

The property is also located within the city’s downtown historic district, and no changes can be made to the appearance of a property without the approval of the Historic Commission.

City officials said the building was deemed inappropriate to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places and cleared for demolition in 2009 by the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office.

One aspect of any proposal the city receives that will be closely scrutinized is the set of financial statements and ability of the principals to fund a redevelopment project that could cost upwards of $5 million. In addition to submitting a detailed proposal, the applicants have to participate in a walk-through of the property on Feb. 22 with city officials. The proposals are due back to the city by 11 a.m. March 13.

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Mike Robinette, owner of Liberty Spirits adjacent to both sides of the theater, said his preference would be to see the entire Studio Theater rehabilitated, which he thinks would be good for the city and his business.

Robinette said his business is still getting water coming through the common wall after doing temporary fixes. Robinette said a permanent fix cannot be done unless the theater is rehabbed or torn down.

“I don’t know how that would work (a redevelopment instead of demolition),” Robinette said. “If it had made any sense, someone would have done something already. I’m glad to see that the city is going to do something. Having it just sit there is only going to deteriorate it further.”

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