Historic Theater Readies for Comeback in Downtown Flint, Mich.

Published by Teresa Garcia on Monday, May 8, 2017

Ray Charles, AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Buster Keaton have something in common: Each was a headliner at the historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint, Mich.

Opened in 1928 to showcase vaudeville acts, the Capitol Theatre over the years evolved into a movie theater, then a concert and performing arts center before financial troubles forced its doors closed in 1996. Spurred by private donations and the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit (HTC), Flint-based developer Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, in partnership with the performing arts presenting organization The Whiting and the Flint Cultural Center Corporation, is undertaking a multimillion-dollar renovation of the Capitol Theatre that will put the historic venue back in use when it reopens later this year.

“This investment is critical to sustaining the momentum that was developing throughout the city before the water crisis,” said Joseph Martin, development director at Uptown Reinvestment Group. Martin said the theater’s restoration is made indirectly more important to the city’s revitalization in light of the 2014 crisis that drew national headlines after the discovery of tainted drinking water in the city. Martin said that the performance and community engagement activities planned for the operational theater will ensure access to the venue for the entire community, while also signaling that downtown Flint is an open and vibrant destination. 

Martin hopes the restored theater will help re-establish a positive image of Flint, while supporting local businesses. “We call it a tipping point project or an accelerator project,” said Martin. “What we’re trying to do is reinforce [existing] investments elsewhere by bringing 1,600 patrons downtown on any given night to see a show. They need to go somewhere to shop, eat or get a drink before the show.”

Local performing arts presenter The Whiting will manage the Capitol Theatre, along with its existing 2,043-seat venue, also in Flint. “One benefit of having a single manager of both [venues] is that the incremental cost of day-to-day management is very little to nothing,” said Jarret Haynes, executive director of The Whiting. “We intend to run one box office and one ticketing system that will serve both venues.” The Whiting administers a variety of education and community engagement programs, in addition to its presentation of local, national and international touring performance companies.

Haynes said the Capitol Theatre will be a welcome addition to The Whiting. “It’s a venue that, architecturally and from a design perspective, complements the performance space at The Whiting,” said Haynes. Haynes said a rock-and-roll group could put on a full-scale, high-tech production at The Capitol one night and perform an acoustic version of their show at the Whiting the next night. The intimacy and flexibility of the Capitol Theatre will also prove to be a resource for myriad community and regional activities ranging from performances to events. 

History

The 1,600-seat Capitol Theatre was designed by John Eberson, one of the pre-eminent architects of the atmospheric theater style in the 1920s. “That type of design element really gave you a sense of being in an Italian garden when you enter the theater into the auditorium proper,” said Martin. The auditorium ceiling could mimic sunrise, sunset or the twinkling stars in the night sky. 

Journal May 2017 State theater photo 1

Image: Courtesy of Capitol Theatre
The historic Capitol Theatre in downtown Flint, Mich., is undergoing a renovation that includes restoring its terracotta and brick façade.

Although the theater had not been in regular use for years, it was kept in remarkably good condition with none of the water damage often found in underused historic properties. Part of the reason was that the building’s office and retail spaces have been continuously occupied. 

“We’re extremely excited to come into a building that’s seen a lot of love and care from the previous owners,” said Martin. “Even though there wasn’t any redevelopment work, they did the best anybody could do to keep it water tight. It was in fairly good condition for a 90-year-old building with 90-year-old mechanical, electrical and plumbing.”

Restoration and Renovation

Renovation work will include restoring the terracotta ornamentation on the building’s exterior, restoring the lobby’s vaulted ceiling, updating lighting fixtures and restoring the auditorium ceiling. In addition, the building’s 1950s marquee will be restored. 

Less than half of the 25,000 square feet of office and retail space has been occupied in recent years, but Urban Reinvestment Corporation hopes to lease all available space by creating smaller, segmented spaces that would be more affordable to small-business entrepreneurs. 

A non-historic third story that was previously added to one side of the building to create more office space will be removed to restore the building’s original symmetry. 

Much of the theater’s interior detailing will also be restored. “A lot of the decorative paint and plasterwork had either been painted over or scraped off and turned into a gray, dull monotone throughout the building and theater,” said Martin. He said that the cost of removing the non-historic third floor is a bargain compared to the cost of meticulously restoring the theater’s decorative plasterwork and paintings. “It’s surprisingly not as expensive as having 10 guys with paintbrushes the size of a toothpick,” joked Martin.

Journal May 2017 State theater photo 2

Image: Courtesy of Capitol Theatre
The Capitol Theatre building includes retail and office spaces.

Financing

The extensive renovations were made possible by multiple sources of financing. “We can’t overstate enough how important tax credits, like the new markets tax credit and historic tax credit, are to these transactions,” said Martin.

Old National Bank provided $4.4 million in HTC equity and a $1.8 million loan to bridge the timing of construction for the tax credit investment and the communication contributions that will be collected. Chip Windisch, vice president of capital markets for Old National Bank, said that every part of the financing was crucial, especially the private and public partnerships. 

In addition to the tax credit financing, about $19 million was donated to the project by two philanthropic organizations: $15 million from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and $4 million from The Hagerman Foundation. Another $1.1 million was donated from other sources.

The state of Michigan provided $5.5 million in long-term patient equity through the Michigan Strategic Fund, so that the state’s economic development corporation is a minority owner of the project. The Community Foundation of Greater Flint also provided a $3 million bridge loan.

“Without those contributions and the availability of the historic tax credit, we’d just be looking at a vacant theater, rather than a functional theater that brings arts and entertainment to downtown Flint,” said Windisch. “The combination of preserving a rare historic building and having such a tremendous impact on the community is why we’re involved. I can honestly say it’s my favorite project I’ve ever done.” 

Journal May 2017 State theater finance box