Inside County Government

Foundation: $3.8 million still needed for Carolina Theatre makeover

City of Charlotte Special Projects Manager Robert Drayton (left) points out details as City Council members and other city officials took a tour of the old Carolina Theatre on Wednesday October 10, 2012 to get an idea of how much of the aging structure remains for redevelopment. DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
City of Charlotte Special Projects Manager Robert Drayton (left) points out details as City Council members and other city officials took a tour of the old Carolina Theatre on Wednesday October 10, 2012 to get an idea of how much of the aging structure remains for redevelopment. DIEDRA LAIRD - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Now that the Foundation for the Carolinas has $4.2 million of public money to aid in its renovation of the historic Carolina Theatre, the philanthropic group has one thing left to do:

Raise more money.

Mecklenburg County commissioners decided July 7 to give the foundation the money it requested, bringing the total amount of cash raised for the project to $31.2 million. But that’s still $3.8 million shy of the $35 million project goal, according to foundation President Michael Marsicano.

The $31.2 million includes $27 million in private money the foundation has gathered from donors that include Bank of America, Wells Fargo and the Belk family, and the $3.7 million worth of real estate the city gave the group to boost the theater, built in 1927, with a makeover.

Commissioners praised the foundation’s renovation project during a July 7 meeting and unanimously approved giving the group $4.2 million.

The foundation originally asked the county for $3.7 million but amended that request by $500,000 when the county agreed to allot funding for additional cosmetic improvements, including returning six murals to the theater’s interior that overlook the stage and audience, and restoring the original marquee to the exterior. The goal is to turn the aged entertainment venue into a combined civic and arts space that will house debates, symposia and other programs.

“There’s not really this civic space” in uptown, Marsicano said.

$35 million Total project cost

$3.8 million Money left to raised

$31.2 million Money raised so far

The foundation plans to raise the rest of the money via private donations by December, when all its pledges for the project must be submitted, and the project’s architects, Westlake Reed Leskosky, will finish the new theater’s design. Construction is to begin in January or February next year.

But work might be delayed by a few months if plans for a $60 million high-end boutique hotel atop the theater move forward, Marsicano said.

Several developers have made overtures to build a hotel, but no deal has been reached, he said.

In the meantime, “we’re going down parallel tracks” on the project: “One, how does it work if there is a hotel, and the second, how does it work if there isn’t a hotel,” he said.

So why is a hotel important to the theater’s success?

If we have a hotel on top of that, it will generate some income.

Michael Marsicano, president of the Foundation for the Carolinas

The foundation and Charlotte Center City Partners are “co-leading” a massive redevelopment plan for the North Tryon corridor uptown. Part of that plan includes a sophisticated hotel for uptown.

And a hotel would help the theater offset costs of operation. Once the theater opens in 2018, it will operate on an annual $2.2 million budget. The hotel would bring in most of that revenue, except an $250,000 operating deficit.

“All theaters run them; most theaters fill that bucket by philanthropy,” Marsicano said. “If we have a hotel on top of that, it will generate some income.”

All project pledges must be in by December. The money from donors will be dispersed over roughly five years.

When skeptics question whether the ambitious restoration is worth the effort given the theater’s tattered state, Marsicano points to a series of before-and-after photos of theaters in Knoxville, San Diego and Cleveland that have undergone massive transformations. He tells them the same is possible for Charlotte.

Said Marsicano: “It can be something special.”

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