A 93-year-old historic Eau Claire theater on the market would not be allowed to host live performances, according to conditions currently placed on the building’s sale.
The city’s Landmarks Commission is urging The State Theatre’s owner to get rid of that proposed deed restriction to help the property sell, instead of making demolition a more appealing alternative.
Councilman David Strobel, who serves on the commission, said short-term restrictions against performances for a few years would be understandable, but the current proposal that would go with the deed would be onerous.
“It’s not a length of time — it’s forever,” Strobel said.
The Landmarks Commission sent a letter July 12 to The State Theatre’s owner — the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council — and a group that holds sway over the building’s future — the Confluence Council.
In the letter, the city commission mentions a restrictive covenant attached to the sale, which would effectively bar competition with the soon-to-open Pablo Center at the Confluence, which is run by the Confluence Council. The covenant would specifically bar “an entertainment event including, without limitation, a concert, exhibition, sport, theatrical and/or music event to be held on the property for which admission is charged or donations are in any manner suggested or solicited.”
“Such restrictive covenants could easily result in the abandonment of the building and eventual demolition of the property,” the letter stated.
The letter had not gotten a response by Monday afternoon’s Landmarks Commission meeting, but one of that group’s own members had some insight into the potential future of The State Theatre.
Brady Foust, who serves on the Landmarks Commission and Confluence Council, said in a few weeks ownership of the old theater is expected to go from the arts council to the Confluence Council. He’s skeptical that a third-party will come forward to buy the building, adding that there haven’t been any serious offers since it went on the market in winter.
Commission members Dale Poynter and Joan Myers said just having the restrictions could have been a deterrent to would-be buyers.
On the table?
Though he said he couldn’t speak for others on the Confluence Council, Foust said he would expect that if an interested party came forward that the contingency would be on the table.
“It’s all open to negotiation,” Foust said of conditions for selling the building.
In an email to the Leader-Telegram, Vicki Hoehn, chairwoman of the Confluence Council, noted that the group does not yet own The State Theatre. She did say the deed restriction against performances is “a reasonable restriction to support the viability of the Pablo Center at the Confluence.”
Though Foust said he couldn’t speak for fellow Confluence Council members, he could entertain another kind of limitation on performances at the State instead of the indefinite restriction. A suggestion he had is a “right of first refusal” arrangement in which the Pablo Center would get first pick of large acts eyeing a stop in Eau Claire, over future owners of The State Theatre.
A possibility the Landmarks Commission suggested in its letter is that the State be used for performances and other events that “may not be the right fit for the Pablo Center.” This could be for acts with scheduling conflicts or those that anticipate an audience somewhere between the Pablo Center’s 1,200-seat main theater and its 400-seat secondary theater.
“Down the line, we could use it for overflow,” Foust said.
But he noted the State’s 1,098-seat theater needs a new boiler and roof. That led him to mention a third option — “mothballing” the stage and seating for use as storage space while keeping offices, gallery and studio spaces in operation at the State.
Foust said the future of The State Theatre has not been discussed much at Confluence Council meetings because that group has been busy with other things, hinting to the Pablo Center’s grand opening next month. When the new downtown arts center is up and running, Foust expects the group will talk more about The State Theatre.
“It will work itself out, I’m convinced,” he said.
Built in 1925 and opened in January 1926 for vaudeville performances, The State Theatre is on Eau Claire Street, about a block and a half east of the Pablo Center. For decades it was a major downtown movie house until closing in 1982.
After being donated in 1984 to the newly formed Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, it reopened in 1986 as a performing arts center.
While the building itself does not have status as a local landmark, it is in the boundaries of the Confluence Commercial District in downtown Eau Claire that appears on the National Register of Historic Places.
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