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WV city moves to purchase historic theater

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Photo courtesy of Kathryn Johnston Photo courtesy of Kathryn Johnston


For The State Journal

Growing up in Clarksburg, Steve Goff spent many Saturdays at the Robinson Grand Theatre.

For six Pepsi bottle caps and a dime, he could watch a "Three Stooges" fest or the "Hercules and Sinbad" cartoons. 

"It was babysitting all day. Parents would send their kids to the theater and then go shop," Goff said. "The downtown was very vibrant."

He is looking forward to Clarksburg's downtown eventually becoming that kind of destination again. And he, along with city leaders who are buying the building, think the revitalization of the Robinson Grand, most recently called the Rose Garden Theatre, is key to downtown's rebirth.

Clarksburg City Council is about to buy the historic theater at 444 W. Pike St. and wants to turn it into a regional cultural center.

City Manager Martin Howe said a public hearing on the purchase and a second reading of an ordinance to acquire the 16,650-square foot building will be April 17.

Clarksburg will pay $430,000 to current owners C.J. Martin, James B. Lambert and David D. Rexroad. The city and the owners both obtained appraisals and settled on a price that fell in the middle, Howe said.

To prepare to renovate the building, Clarksburg is applying for a $250,000 grant through the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. The city will learn in October if it has been awarded the money. But council isn't waiting to act.

"The city is immediately beginning the process of requesting proposals for architectural/engineering services," Howe said. "This will allow the city to retain a firm to assist the city to begin planning for renovations/revitalization. 

"Upon finalizing those plans, as well as cost projections, the city can then immediately begin the bidding process to contract those renovations.  Depending on costs, the city will need to decide if it should be done at once or in multiple phases."

Council is looking even further ahead to how the future cultural center will be run.

"It would be our intention to have a foundation to allow for monetary donations to assist in funding the theater," Howe said. "In addition, it would be my intent to have a management company run the day-to-day operations as well as scheduling."

Which entities Clarksburg will collaborate with remain to be seen.

"There are many people excited about the project," Howe said. "Our main concern was to acquire the property to enable the culture and arts to be brought back to the heart of Clarksburg, (Harrison) County and surrounding areas. 

"There are many resources within the community which will be relied upon to make the theater a success."

Goff said that's necessary to ensure the project's success, and he should know.

Goff, who lives at Lake Floyd, near Salem, is an actor, writer, comedian and coach of the improv comedy group "The Fearless Fools." He also was head of the Wilson (N.C.) theater project, the first director of Main Street Morgantown and the first director of the Metropolitan Theatre in Morgantown. He also has worked for the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Main Street Center.

"One of the overarching themes when you do a project like this is you really have to sell the city and the citizenry on (the fact that) it's not going to be a moneymaker anytime soon," Goff said. "You have to subsidize the arts for a long time sometimes before you get to the break-even point. 

"The first thing is the city has to make a long-term commitment, and they're doing that. I think this is a great first step."

Goff said Parkersburg's Smoot Theater is a good example of what a cultural center in Clarksburg could become.

"They have two or three national acts, regional shows and Marietta College stages performances there as well as local groups," he said, also listing the opportunity to host popular musical acts and to show movies. 

Sources cite Dorothy Davis' "History of Harrison County" when they report the theater first opened Feb. 5, 1913. When fire gutted the building in 1939, its owners restored it for $600,000. Howe said it was used periodically in the early 1990s but it has sat dormant for many years.