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For years, the marquee lights loomed lifeless over England Street, reminders of a bygone era in downtown Ashland. But local officials hope that’s all about to change.
Friday, Ashland officials announced that Jean and A.D. Whittaker had donated the circa-1948 Ashland Theater to the town. Going forward, the town hopes to attract private sector partners to help turn the theater into a thriving entertainment hub, which plays perfectly into ongoing downtown revitalization efforts in the “Center of the Universe.”
“We’d like to find a combination of private partners that can work with the town, the economic development authority, the Ashland Main Street Association, to breathe some life back into the theater and make it an active part of our downtown,” said Charles Hartgrove, Ashland town manager.
Town Council officially accepted the theater as a deed of gift by resolution Tuesday night.
“What an exciting time for the town,” said Mayor Faye Prichard, following the unanimous vote to accept the iconic venue.
It has been years since the theater has welcomed patrons on a regular basis. It has been used occasionally for special events, and over the past decade, Hartgrove said non-profits have attempted limited movie viewings. These included efforts from the Hanover Humane Society, which aired movies as a fundraising effort, and the group that evolved into the Firehouse Theater, which now shows films in the former Ashland Firehouse.
“After years of seeing the Ashland Theater closed and after repeated failures to find the means to reopen, [the town is] to be congratulated on obtaining this donation,” said Ragan Phillips, Firehouse Theater founder and former president of its nonprofit. “Restoration of the theater will be a challenge but, once accomplished, the theater will be a social and economic catalyst for Ashland.”
The historic theater only has one stage and one screen, and Alexis Thompson, director of economic development for the town, said it will be important to find an operator familiar with “this kind of setting,” and who will know how to be successful in the venue.
While it will take some renovation to get the venue up and running, Thompson disavowed rumors that the facility is derelict.
“There are lots of urban legends about pigeons living in the theater which aren’t true; it’s actually in pretty good shape, and the property owners have, over the years, done some significant improvements to the building,” Thompson said.
Saving the theater was one of the Ashland Main Street Association’s priorities. Last year, Preservation Virginia named the Ashland Theater one of the state’s “Most Endangered Sites” at the urging of Main Street.
“We believe it is one of the town’s most valuable historic assets, and its reopening is bound to bring new vitality and economic benefits to the entire downtown,” said Tom Wulf, executive director of Main Street. “We are grateful that Mr. Whitaker has given the Town this extraordinary gift, and we will support efforts to reopen the theater in any way we can.”
There’s also some precedent in renovating downtown theaters. Last May, Wulf said the historic State Theater in Culpeper – another designated Main Street community – was renovated and reopened. It now draws national talent.
“We would love to see that happen with our iconic Ashland Theater as well,” he said.
Thompson said the town had maintained close ties with Whittaker and would help link him with prospective buyers whenever the chance arose. However, handing the facility over to the town was never really in the picture until recently.
“The actual ‘gifting’ of the theater was quite sudden and unexpected,” Thompson said.
“It was a very pleasant and generous surprise, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t, again, thank Jean and A.D. Whittaker for this hopefully community-changing donation that will continue to help us with revitalization downtown,” Hartgrove added.
Hartgrove said the town will have to work with Hanover’s building inspection office to see what’s needed to bring the building into compliance en route to an occupancy permit.
Going forward, the town will continue to evaluate the building and work to attract and work with the private sector. Hartgrove also hopes the town will be able to identify sources of grant funding to aid revitalization efforts.