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When Toledo City Councilman Tom Waniewski landed his first kiss as a seventh grader, it was in North Toledo’s Ohio Theatre.
“Every week we came here,” said Mr. Waniewski, who grew up in the area. “It was a Norman Rockwell type of place.”
The historic theater is shuttered now. Paint is flaking from the ceiling. And despite the unusually balmy 50-degree weather on Friday afternoon, you could see your breath inside the unheated auditorium.
Still, the announcement from the stage got a warm reception.
Terry Glazer, executive director of the theater’s owner, United North, told a shivering audience that his organization will begin rehabilitating the theater in February, with a planned opening in October. The theater has been closed since 2009.
“This project is important for many reasons. It will attract people not only from the neighborhood, but throughout the region,” Mr. Glazer said. “It will provide programs for youth. It will attract other businesses. And it will create economic activity.”
Mr. Glazer also announced that Bob LaClair, regional president of Fifth Third Bank, will lead a fund-raising campaign for the project.
Mr. LaClair, who recalled sitting on Santa’s lap during his father’s Christmas parties at the Lagrange Steet theater, said the project will give the neighborhood “another shot in the arm.”
United North has already raised $600,000 toward an initial goal of $750,000, he said. That money will pay for a new roof, a re-configured stage, plumbing, heating, new bathrooms, and temporary dressing room and office areas. The Lathrop Co. has been selected as the general contractor.
Mr. LaClair said that’s just the beginning. The ultimate goal is to raise $4 million, he said. Organizers of the effort are hoping $2 million of that will come from state and federal historic tax credits.
That additional money would go toward reducing the number of seats from 960 to 475, improving the building’s facade, and demolishing a neighboring building to make room for an expansion, Mr. Glazer said. Those improvements will make the theater more dynamic, he said, capable of hosting everything from banquets and youth arts programs to concerts featuring the theater’s historic pipe organ.
“You can’t just have a traditional theater,” Mr. Glazer said. “You’ve got to have something that can be used for a variety of purposes.”
Mr. LaClair said his involvement is part of Fifth Third’s ongoing commitment to the neighborhood. Last year, his company spent $1.5 million to replace a branch office a few doors down from the theater, he said.
The 15,900-square-foot theater opened in 1921 to a screening of “The Mark of Zorro.” At one time, it was one of more than 60 neighborhood movie houses in Toledo. In 2006, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
United North, a nonprofit community development group, purchased the building in 2009 after its previous owner, Ohio Theater Inc., announced plans to close the facility.
Several elected officials attended Friday’s announcement, including U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, and Councilwoman Paula Hicks-Hudson, whose district includes the theater.
Mayor Bell, who grew up in North Toledo and whose parents still live there, said he had fond memories of the theater.
“Being a North Toledo boy, I can tell you the best spot in the theater is back there in the corner,” he joked.
He emphasized the importance of such venues for Toledo’s youth. “We want them to have things to do,” he said.
Councilman Waniewski agreed, but he said that without improvements in other areas, the renovated theater will only help the neighborhood so much.
“I hope it can do so much more,” he said. “If it’s only a theater surrounded by crime and vacant homes, then it will have been a waste of money.”
Mr. LaClair said it was the project’s potential long-term impact that made it a worthy cause for him.
“It will enhance the business corridor,” he said. “There’s a long-term benefit.”
Contact Tony Cook at: email@example.com or 419-724-6065.