Can the Wheaton Theater be saved?
Bank takes over ownership as city questions its use
By Jenn Zimmerman/TribLocal reporter
Standing among the aging, deteriorating walls of the Wheaton Grand Theater, Ray Shepardson stares at a set of colorful photographs.
The images of refurbished theaters represent a resume of sorts to the preservationist, who has spent most of his lifetime restoring old, historical cinemas into successful business ventures.
He hoped the Wheaton Grand Theater would be another one of his success stories, with acts such as Joan Baez, Christian-jazz group Take 6 and comedian Jerry Seinfeld bringing in guests by the hundreds to fill the seats and populate the downtown area.
Instead, the stage remains empty, with no money and little obvious public support to help turn the historical theater into a suburban destination.
And now the bank has taken control.
“I can’t believe I have been here five years and it has been a complete waste of time,” Shepardson said.
Hired on as a project manager by non-profit group Grand Theater Corp., Shepardson’s initial vision was a $14 to $15 million restoration that would bring more than 300,000 people to the Wheaton-area each year.
He was going to add seats, expand the bathrooms, offer private lounges and install the latest in sound, video and staging equipment.
But problems began to surface in November after the Wheaton Park District backed away from its interest in floating about $20 million in bonds to raise money to rehab the aging movie palace.
With no acts coming in to generate revenue and a church group pulling out from renting the space, the non-profit group was unable to make payments on its loan and turned over ownership to Suburban Bank and Trust Co. earlier this summer.
Shepardson said he is still optimistic the theater can be turned into a profitable, successful venue for the city – it’s just a matter of the right people understanding his vision.
“I’m being criticized that it is too risky,” he said.
A previous study conducted by the park district’s consultant Jim Hirsch questioned the theater’s ability to attract artists, the financial and audience projections as well as the marketing plan.
Shepardson has continued to dispute Hirsch’s findings, feeling as though they were “exaggerated” and inaccurate. He also is concerned about a recent consultant hired by the city, which he feels also lacks in understanding.
Earlier this year a committee of elected officials, local businessmen and landowners was formed to look into ways to develop the theater.
Chicago-based Market and Feasibility Advisors was hired at a cost of $28,500 to facilitate with this process, specifically looking into how the theater could be redeveloped and operated in a way that it would cover its own operating costs as well as the costs of the renovation.
As part of their study, consultants have interviewed dozens of local businessmen and elected officials over the past several weeks, said Mayor Michael Gresk.
The results will be presented in the next few weeks.
“As a city, the big question we have to answer is do we want to take that step and financially back the theater?” Gresk said.
With the city continuing to cut programs and expenses, he said it is important to keep in perspective what Wheaton can afford. There is also a reason the park district didn’t pursue its own interest in the theater, despite how successful it could have been running it, Gresk said.
Still, economic development is also a top priority of the city, said councilman John Prendiville, who sits on the committee. He believes restoring the Wheaton Grand Theater would help the city achieve a lot of what it is trying to do with the downtown – bringing in patrons to spend money.
He supports the idea of using non-taxpayer money to pay for the restoration of the theater, although the city is not looking to take over ownership.
“I think the theater would be a great addition to the downtown,” Prendiville said.
He expects the committee to present its recommendation to the council shortly after receiving the final report.