Leonard Felson
Jun 19, 2018

Turning On the Lights Downtown; More Cities Are Banking on Live Theater (and Places to Eat) Being the Switch

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Edited: Sep 10, 2018

As Connecticut's cities search for ways to recapture the luster they once possessed, theaters and performing arts centers are increasingly playing a supporting role in those urban revitalization dramas.

In June, The Bushnell in Hartford will break ground on an 88,000-square-foot $30 million addition, giving the 69-year-old 2,800-seat landmark a modern 950-seat auditorium for smaller productions.

In New Haven, an extensive renovation of the Shubert Performing Arts Center two years ago has allowed the 85-year-old theater to return to its roots as a showcase for pre-Broadway tryouts and other world premieres. And in Stamford, modernization of the Palace Theater, built in 1927 as a vaudeville and movie house, has already enabled the theater to bring major Broadway productions to the city.

In all three cities, the expansion and renovation work has been accomplished with financial help from private donors, corporations and the state, which has approved millions of dollars in aid. Beyond the obvious benefit to the theaters, city, state and corporate leaders have supported the projects because they believe the arts can serve as an economic catalyst to bring new life to urban centers.

''The arts enrich our communities, and they are helping to create tourism and entertainment districts in many of our urban areas,'' said Gov. John G. Rowland. ''Community theaters, museums and galleries all help bring people downtown. And the arts are helping to spur economic development by enhancing the quality of life in cities and towns throughout Connecticut.''

 

In return, theater operators say many restoration projects would not have occurred without support from Hartford. ''We're delighted we have a governor and legislature who both recognize the value of cultural assets to economic development,'' said John Hiddlestone, operations director for the Stamford Center for the Arts, and the man in charge of the Palace Theater improvement project.

Indeed, other cities across the state also have theater renovation projects, most with state financial support. Among them are the following.

* The Garde Arts Center in New London is in the midst of a $15.7 million renovation that not only includes the former movie theater (built in 1926) but also two blocks on State Street, designed to redefine the downtown area and connect people to the heart of the city.

* The Warner Theater in Torrington is restoring the Art Deco theater (built in 1931). The $12 million public/private partnership aims to create an anchor downtown as well as a cultural and entertainment draw for northwestern Connecticut.

* In Bridgeport, the Polka Dot Playhouse, with a $2 million grant from the State Bond Commission, is converting a former bank building into its new home. The Klein Auditorium, also in Bridgeport, is using a $2.5 million grant to renovate.

* The former Colonial Theater in Hartford received $5 million in state aid to help redevelop the theater and create new retail space in the city's West End.

Though officials of most of the theaters being renovated say work needs to be done to modernize bathrooms, enlarge lobbies and update electrical, heating and cooling systems, the work will also open the theaters to many more groups, whether community companies or touring shows. That in turn translates into opportunities to draw more and varied audiences, which also means more activity on the streets of the state's cities.

 

''Just look at the newest performing arts center to come on line in Newark,'' said Arnold C. Greenberg, president of The Bushnell's board of directors. ''It's created crowds and energy. It brings people downtown, which is good for the city's image and for restaurants.''

Renovating or expanding performing arts centers is more than good for the arts organizations and theaters across the state, he said. Economically, for example, The Bushnell's addition will create 150 to 200 construction jobs, and once built, 100 new theater employees will be hired.

More importantly, said Mr. Greenberg, the sight of construction cranes ought to provide a psychological boost to Hartford, which for most of the 90's has seen few new construction projects get off the drawing boards. The new theater is scheduled to open in the fall of 2001.

When open, Mr. Greenberg said, he expects increased activity at restaurants near The Bushnell, including new ones that may open as a result of the added venue, and he said it is possible that a vibrant street life of eateries, cafes and boutiques could develop along Capitol Avenue between The Bushnell and downtown Main Street. In fact, with plans to create new housing developments on surface parking lots near The Bushnell, coupled with plans to create a $1.3 billion riverfront development known as Adriaen's Landing, Mr. Greenberg said, ''it's not fanciful to imagine a marvelous boulevard from the State Capitol to the Connecticut River -- and The Bushnell will spark the new activity.''

The renovation of the Shubert in New Haven, which helped turn it into a pre-Broadway house again, has similarly boosted economic activity in that city. The recent pre-Broadway production of ''The Civil War,'' for example, brought 28,000 people downtown to see the show.

''For two months, 150 to 200 people from the show lived in our hotels, bought three meals a day, and left a lot of money in the city,'' said Caroline Werth, the Shubert's president and chief executive officer.

Besides attracting producers, actors and theatergoers from New York, the new Shubert is also drawing 30 percent of its audience from Fairfield County, Ms. Werth said, many of whom had never been to the theater before. ''They're discovering that it's the same ride from Greenwich to New Haven as it is to Manhattan,'' she said, ''except it's much less expensive.''

At the Long Wharf Theater, not far away in New Haven, the managing director, Michael Ross, agreed that the theater could have a strong impact on a city's economic impact. ''We've run the numbers on what we bring to the community,'' he said. ''On any given night if both our venues at the Long Wharf are operating'' -- a capacity of 700 people -- ''63 percent of the people go to a restaurant in the area, and 89 percent go to a restaurant in New Haven. On average they spend $25 to $35 per person.''

Though the Long Wharf, built in 1965, isn't being renovated, it expects to benefit from a proposed shopping mall next door, a 1.3-million square-foot complex called the New Haven Galleria at Long Wharf. The mall, which still has several legal and permit hurdles to overcome, is anticipated to draw one million shoppers a year. Mr. Ross said the mall developers have already agreed to work with the theater and the arts community to promote events.

 

Officials say the arts have played a key role in Stamford's effort to recapture a vibrancy downtown. Among the improvements to the 1,584-seat Palace, bought in 1989 by the Stamford Center of the Arts, was the enlargement of the stage and the addition of dressing rooms to accommodate large-scale productions. Improvements continue, including the construction of a new lobby and a 195-seat basement auditorium, but since the Palace reopened for large-scale musicals, Stamford has witnessed a burst of night life.

''This was a city in which the streets went totally dead at 6 o'clock,'' said Mr. Hiddlestone. ''Gradually that's changed. Now there are nightclubs, bars and lots of restaurants, and though the theaters aren't the only cause of that change, they certainly help bring people out on the street,'' he added.

The ability to present Broadway productions in Connecticut theaters has also contributed to what economists call ''reverse tourism,'' the environment that allows the state to keep residents' spending power within the state.

''A growing number of people can see entertainment in Stamford that they used to have to go to New York for,'' said Mr. Hiddlestone. ''Obviously, it's a different experience than being in New York, but at least it's here on the doorstep,'' he said, noting the recent production of ''Peter Pan'' at the Palace, which went on to Broadway. ''It was the same cast, the same production,'' he said.

Farther northeast along the shoreline, in New London, the Garde may be the model of how smaller cities can leverage the arts to rebuild a sense of community. ''Our strategic vision is all about that reconnection,'' said Steve Segal, the theater's managing director.

''The programming is not necessarily about what happens on stage,'' he said. ''In an urban setting, you have to also look outside the perimeters of the theater.'' Toward that goal, the Garde has bought key pieces of the State Street block to help lure people downtown and to ease their fears that the city is a dangerous place, Mr. Segal said.

''We like to think of ourselves as the grand lobby of the heart and soul of the city marketplace,'' Mr. Segal said. ''Out of those interactions, other things happen. The waterfront gets developed. New restaurants open. And new partnerships -- educational, cultural or residential -- can start to bloom.''

 

 

 

 

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