A group of Omaha entrepreneurs hopes to raise $1.3 million to restore a former Benson movie theater and transform it into an arts performance space and education center.
The Benalto Theater, 6054 Maple St., was built in 1923 as a combination vaudeville house, movie theater and community space. From 1927 to 1953 it was the Benson Theater, part of a chain of neighborhood movie theaters, seating about 400. It has been vacant for five years.
Amy Ryan, owner and operator of the Pizza Shoppe next door, is spearheading the project, which she sees as part of a self-sustaining community development concept for Benson.
The revamped theater would join a number of restaurants, bars and other businesses that have opened in the neighborhood in the past nine months or so, including Ella's, Lot 2 and Ethel Mae's restaurants and Krug Park bar. Beercade, a bar and arcade, is opening April 13. Another restaurant, Mantra, is expected to open soon, and a brewpub is in the works.
The Benson Theatre Project, a project of the Omaha Community Foundation, will try to raise $50,000 in the next 50 days to pay for 18 months of rent, insurance and overhead to secure the building, Ryan said.
Phase 2 would be raising $250,000 to buy the building from a development partnership, which purchased it two years ago. A deal for rental and purchase of the building is still under negotiation.
The final phase, about $900,000, would be the actual restoration. Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture has begun work on restoration plans.
The Pizza Shoppe will offer $20 brunches for the next six Sundays through Mother's Day, each from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to help reach the initial $50,000 goal.
Ryan said strong community support could lead the restored building to open as early as fall 2013.
"I'm so excited to learn how many people love Benson as much as I do," Ryan said. "So many who have gone to Benson High, or they grew up here, or some relative lived here, they have a lot of love for this community."
Ryan envisions the theater being used as a workshop center during the day, offering classes on business education, finance and strategic planning for artists and startup entrepreneurs.
"Entrepreneurship is the new art form," she said. "People can learn these processes to succeed in business. We're hoping for corporate-sponsored classes offered free."
At night, the 200-seat sloped-floor theater, complete with an orchestra pit, fly space above the stage and state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems, would be booked for whatever the community needs, Ryan said: live theater, comedy, concerts, presentations by local filmmakers and more.
Ryan said the building will need new electrical, heating, cooling and plumbing systems, flooring, seating and a concerted effort to restore its historic architecture. No photos of the theater's interior have been found.
Most recently, Rick's Fitness used the building as a warehouse.
Other key activists in the effort, according to Ryan, are Raechel Achelpohl, Jesse Stanek, Sarah Wengert, Marq Manner, David Codr and Monty Eich.
The Omaha Community Foundation is providing fiscal sponsorship until the Benson Theatre Project secures its own nonprofit status for donors. Money donated now will be funneled through the foundation and is tax deductible.
"We think the plans for the theater are a great combination, visionary," said Mike Leighton, president and chief executive officer of the Omaha Community Foundation. "We have a great deal of confidence in the people behind the project."
Leighton said the plan fits the Omaha By Design initiative, which has promoted conservation and development in established parts of Omaha.
"This is part of the re-emergence of Benson as a thriving community," he said.
City Councilman Pete Festersen, who represents Benson, endorsed the project in a Monday letter to Ryan.
Jay Palu, an architect at Alley Poyner Macchietto, said projects that have a chance to help an emerging neighborhood take special attention and time.
"We're still exploring the capabilities of the building," he said. "Amy's intent is to go back to the original as much as possible. With buildings this old, it usually turns out to be a mix of what it was and what's feasible today."
With extensive renovation over the years, and incomplete records of what once was, he said, patience takes precedence.
"The goal will be to once again have a building that serves as a center of the Benson community," he said.
Ryan said Benson already has a lively music and bar-band scene. The Benson Theatre Project is a way to make sure all art forms are represented in Benson, she said.
"This vision for Benson as a cultural and entertainment district is really coming to fruition," said Shelley Kiel, manager of the Benson Business Improvement District. "This could be the crown jewel in the future of the Benson area."
She said there has been an outpouring of support for the project since it was posted on Facebook over the weekend, with more than 200 "likes" within 24 hours.
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