State Theatre

State Theatre, 1939. Photo by Thomas McNeer, Jr.

Check out this interesting article about the State Theatre from the Kingsport Times News.

Study envisions new future for State Theatre

KINGSPORT — The State Theatre is worth saving.

By Sharon Hayes

That’s the verdict of an economic impact study commissioned by the Kingsport Economic Development Board to determine the viability of restoring the old theater on Broad Street.

The study was conducted by the Cinema Preservation Group of Asheville, N.C., and presented to the KEDB and other community members last week at the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce.

Ivan Eisenberg, with the Cinema Preservation Group, said a restored State Theatre has the potential to generate as much as $660,000 in annual revenues, while the city could see an increase in spending of nearly $900,000 as a result of the theater. The study suggested the theater could draw more than 110,000 people annually to the downtown area, resulting in more opportunities for other downtown businesses, more potential investment in the downtown district, and more tax dollars for the city.

“I believe there is absolutely a way to make this profitable,” Eisenberg said.

Dating back to the 1930s, the State Theatre is now owned by developer Doug Beatty, who acquired the property in 2005 and began renovations in 2006. Since then, Beatty has opened Bone Fire (formerly called 12 Bones restaurant), restored the old Kingsport Grocery Co. and opened a restaurant there, and opened the Bus Pit, a renovated music venue. All three of those ventures are located on Main Street.

Beatty has said that taking on so many projects was a big load on his shoulders — and then the bottom dropped out of the economy in the fall of 2008.

Beatty is now willing to sell the theater property. He has invested more than $650,000 in the facility, including $450,000 in renovation costs. Demolition, electrical and plumbing work is finished, while the theater still needs a new heating and cooling system, drywall and finishing work, and interior furnishings.

If someone or some organization were to buy the theater today, the cost would most likely exceed $1 million, including payment to Beatty and funds to complete the renovations.

Still, the Cinema Preservation Group believes the project is a worthwhile investment.

“Based on our findings in this study, we recommend that the Kingsport community work together to breathe new life into the downtown district by restoring the theatre that was once the heart of Broad Street,” the study reads. “Of the two remaining classic theatre spaces in Kingsport, the State presents the most promising opportunity for restoration. Kingsport has the population, resources and motivation to ensure a smooth restoration. Preserving our collective past is vital to our future success, and the potential financial and cultural benefits outweigh the risks of failure.”

Mayor Dennis Phillips said he hopes the study will encourage some individual or organization to invest in the State Theater, complete the renovations, and begin operating it for the benefit of the downtown district.

“I think if we can accomplish this without an enormous expense to the taxpayers, it certainly would be a service that is sorely needed,” Phillips said.

Asked about the Strand Theater, another Broad Street historic facility that has recently been used as a venue for live music and old movies, Phillips said the Cinema Preservation Group study could also be used by the Strand owners if they would want to market the facility one day. The Strand Theatre is owned by Restoration Church.

“I don’t know if the Strand Theater is available today. The Strand Theatre is a church,” he said.

But if the Strand were put on the market, “this report would apply … then it becomes a matter of economics of which one could be done at the least cost,” Phillips said.

He denied that the city plans to buy the State Theatre outright.

“That is not true. But the city should have an interest in having the theater be an operational theater, and we should be receptive to try and find someone or some nonprofit that may be able to operate this, which would be a benefit to all the citizens of Kingsport,” Phillips said.

“I want to make it perfectly clear — we are not looking at this to bail anyone out or to play favorites with anyone or any group. We’re looking at this as an opportunity,” he said. “We just don’t want it sitting there vacant.”

Richard Rose, artistic director at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, sent a letter of support for the State Theatre restoration to Kingsport City Manager John Campbell.

“We here at Barter have been hearing extremely positive reports from Barter’s many patrons in the Kingsport area concerning this project and are excited to see this move forward,” Rose said. “Our hope and desire is that the city of Kingsport along with its citizens, both corporate and private, will demonstrate the economic and moral support necessary to make this renovation a success, which will be to the great benefit of your downtown.”

Rose said he’s reviewed the Cinema Preservation Group study and sees the State Theatre project as “an extremely positive step for the region.”

“I know that many times there are concerns that projects like this might be viewed as competition or as having a negative impact on an institution such as Barter. On the contrary, we have found such projects to be very positive for the region, the arts and the community,” Rose said.

He said Barter Theatre has supported similar projects in the region, including The Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Va., Heritage Hall in Mountain City, and the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville.

“We would certainly be interested in supporting The Kingsport State Theatre as it moves forward and helping in any way that we can to see that it progresses toward a very successful completion,” Rose said.

The Cinema Preservation Group study suggested a restored 600-seat State Theatre could be used to host various live performances, including theater and music, as well as first- and second-run films.

The report surveyed 260 people in Kingsport and looked at similar historic theater operations around the country, particularly the Princess Theatre, a 677-seat restored historic theater that has operated successfully for 25 years in Decatur, Ala.

Eisenberg and David Dibler, with the Cinema Preservation Group, said the Princess Theatre is owned by the city of Decatur and operated by a nonprofit organization. Some 62 percent of its revenue comes from public support, including fund-raising efforts and grants.

The Princess Theatre focuses on live performances such as music and theater, and also holds various other events, from wine tastings and private parties to political rallies and auditions for productions.

Eisenberg said the Princess Theatre is managed well and marketed well, which is key to operating a restored historic theater.

“It’s all based on management,” Eisenberg said.

He said that while the Princess Theatre focuses on live performances, other historic theaters may show first-run movies, competing with modern multiplex theaters, or second-run films, which are cheaper but may not attract as many people.

Eisenberg noted that Kingsport does not have a theater that features second-run films, which could be a good option for the State Theatre.

The theater could also serve as a venue for the performing arts as well as live music. And it could also be rented and used for private parties and other events, Eisenberg said.

The Kingsport Economic Development Board paid $10,000 to commission the study.


Workers with Wagner Electric Sign Co. anchor the theater’s new retro marquee to the overhang in this file photo. Erica Yoon.

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