Grand Action Backs Civic Renovations

August 6, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Action Committee and Grand Rapids Civic Theatre and School of Theatre Arts are exploring potential renovations and cosmetic improvements for Civic Theatre. But enhancements to the Civic are once again just a piece of the bigger picture and the economic domino expected to be set in motion.

The Civic Theatre location is critical, as far as Grand Action is concerned.

“We think there are a lot of things going on Division Avenue, particularly south of Fulton, and it’s time for the area north of Fulton to get the same kind of focus and attention,” explained David Frey, Grand Action co-chair.

It’s not a “typical” project for Grand Action, which spearheaded the campaign to create Van Andel Arena in 1996 and the DeVos Place convention center in 2004. But Frey said Grand Action thinks the theater project fits “from a timing standpoint and a donor standpoint” into a very special niche.

The project holds very special interest “for a particular donor or donors” because of the role Civic Theatre plays in the cultural life of the city, he added.

“It’s part of the performing arts package and we think we have a great package in Grand Rapids. Civic Theatre is probably the least visible of the performing arts. It has special appeal to a lot of people.”

As Frey sees it, the project is all part of the “rebirth” of the core city.

The group has contracted Tower Pinkster Titus Associates Inc. to develop three schematic proposals for the Civic, which could range from patron improvements and renovation of the main theater to extensive renovations throughout the entire complex. Grand Action donors are providing private sector funding for the schematic design process.

Frey said the group wants to improve the theatre’s acoustics, public restrooms, lobby and public spaces, as well as seating for the physically disabled.

Bruce Tinker, Civic Theatre’s executive and artistic director, said improved access, ADA compliance and patron amenities are at the top of the list. The interior of the 767-seat theater needs some plaster repairs, fresh paint and an overall face lift, he said, noting that any renovations undertaken would maintain the historic features and flavor of the theater complex. 

“Grand Action has been incredibly gracious in this process,” Tinker remarked. “I think they really understand the historic nature of the building and the anchor that it can be in this part of town. It is the last historic theater in downtown Grand Rapids. In fact, it’s one of the few remaining theaters in Kent County built specifically for live performances.”

Civic Theater has been operating since 1979 out of the former Majestic Theater building at 30 N. Division Ave., which was built in 1903.

Now in its 79th season, Civic Theatre is one of the oldest community theaters in the United States, as well as the largest in Michigan and third largest in the nation. Its performances draw more than 120,000 people in a single season and more than 5,000 are annual season ticket holders

Because the project is a private sector initiative, Grand Action is not disclosing the cost of the Tower Pinkster contract, said Executive Director Jon Nunn. He said there are no preliminary cost estimates on potential renovation proposals as yet. 

The process is to be completed by mid-fall, at which time Grand Action and Civic Theatre representatives, in conjunction with Grand Action donors, will choose among design schemes.

Frey wouldn’t say whether the Civic Theatre project was the one he referred to at a Convention and Arena Authority (CAA) meeting this past February. At the time, Frey, then CAA vice chairman, said Grand Action planned to make a “major” announcement at the end of the first quarter.

“At the time I made that statement it (Civic Theatre renovation) was one of two or three things we were looking at. I’m not going to say whether or not this was the one I had in mind when I made that comment. There’s still more excitement out there.”

He said there remains a couple of other major projects the committee is considering, one being what its role might be with regards to the relocation of the Michigan State Medical School in Grand Rapids.

Frey said Grand Action and Civic Theatre requested three schematic design proposals because the theater complex is made up of four buildings and they feel it’s a “thoughtful and prudent” way to approach the project. 

The Civic includes the historic Majestic Theater and three buildings that front Division Avenue. They are all of different ages and have different mechanical systems and the floors don’t all match, he noted.

“It’s a complicated site and it lends itself to a phased construction timeline, and we think we need three different schematic concepts so we know what kind of dollars are attached to each. When you get into these older buildings, you don’t know what you’ve got until you really dig into the thing a little bit.

“We think there are some special people out there who have a special interest in Civic Theatre and might be willing to cover most or all of the cost, which would not require us to conduct a public fund-raising campaign. It would be a very private, below-the-radar-screen campaign with a very limited number or maybe even one anonymous donor.”

Frey said the group wants to move the project along so as not to interfere with the theater’s production schedule.    

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