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Schine’s Theater restoration hot topic in Massena downtown talks

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MASSENA - One of the most talked-about aspects of the effort to revitalize downtown may be the restoration and reopening of the former Schine’s Theater.

Michael Almasian, executive director of the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena, called the restoration of the theater a “point of gravity” in discussions to utilize $250,000 in state grant funds to make renovations to buildings in Massena’s downtown. A number of residents have commented on the restoration of the theater as a way to improve and increase economic activity downtown.

“There’s a nostalgic hometown pride in that theater doesn’t exist in downtown,” Mr. Alamasian said. “I believe there’s a lot of support for revitalizing the theater to be a community center. It will be a huge asset and a center of gravity downtown.”

Mr. Almasian said other communities, such as Geneva and Schenectady, have based their downtown revitalization efforts around an old downtown theater.

Mr. Almasian feels the first step toward the theater’s restoration is to develop what purpose it will hold, after which they can better develop a plan for renovation.

“What are the needs of the building? We need a clear starting point so the theater effort can apply to those funding sources and do what needs to be done first,” Mr. Almasian said.

Discussions on the possible use of the theater include building a stage inside so that it can be used to both show movies and stage live dramatic performances. However, Mr. Almasian said this type of use would require significant renovations, including a reduction in seating, because the building currently does not support a stage.

Other residents have expressed a wish to see the theater as a kind of arts center, showing the low-budget and limited-release films that often do not get played at other cinemas.

But economic development officials acknowledge there’s a lot of work yet to be done, with renovation work estimated at $500,000 to $750,000 required before the theater could reopen for business.

“The northeast corner of the building needs masonary work. That masonary work is expensive, and it’s needed because the roof is leaking,” Mr. Almasian said. “A not-for-profit is important because those things cost money.”

Closed in 1992 due to a boiler malfunction, the theater was purchased in 1995 by businessman Thomas Gramuglia, who installed a new roof and new fire escapes. He said he originally wanted to reopen the theater, but eventually realized its necessary repairs, which include a new heating system, stage, floor and a fresh coat of paint, were too cost-prohibitive as a business venture.

“For me to put $400,000 or $500,000 in a movie theater, it would take a very long time to get the money back,” he said. “The only way to do it is to put it in a not-for-profit business. It could be the beginning of a restart for Massena.”

Economic development officials originally proposed the formation of a theater committee as one of half a dozen volunteer-based committees formed to identify how to use the New York State Main Street Grant program funds to best revitalize downtown. However, BDC officials said Thursday that they’d determined not to form a theater committee, finding it unnecessary with a not-for-profit LLC being formed to manage the theater.

Mr. Almasian said the formation of a board of directors for the theater not-for-profit LLC is the first step in seeking grant funds from outside sources to renovate the theater. “Any privately owned business has much fewer opportunities for grants. Becoming a not-for-profit frees it up for many grants and awards,” Mr. Almasian said.

BDC board member Ron Bacon suggested the search for members to join the LLC has delayed efforts to restore and repair the theater. “Here we are, we’ve done research, and no one has decided how we will go forward,” he said. “For me, the not-for-profit is just a delay.”

BDC President Daniel S. Pease pointed out it’s not the BDC’s responsibility to be involved in the renovations plans of the theater. “I don’t think it’s incumbent of us to control their development plan. Our members may choose to get involved, but the BDC itself steps back,” he said.

Mr. Bacon replied that the BDC should work to jumpstart efforts to form the LL, and should seek out community members who might be interested in the restoration of the theater.

As part of the downtown revitalization effort, Mr. Gramuglia has applied for funding through the New York Main Street Grant program, according to Mr. Almasian. How far these funds will go toward restoring the theater remains to be seen - with 35 applications for $250,000 in grant fundin, and an estimated cost of approximately $500,000 to restore the theater, it’s likely the grant will only cover a small portion of the renovation work.

However, one positive sign BDC officials see for the theater is the possible restoration of the marquee.

Mr. Almasian said Mr. Gramuglia has pledged to restore the marquee, which he thinks will help return the spirit of the former downtown Massena. “It will lighten up downtown, make people feel good,” Mr. Almasian said.

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