After three years of intense community advocacy, Coos Bay’s beloved Egyptian Theatre is shining bright once again. The downtown landmark was listed as one of Oregon’s Most Endangered Places® in the spring of 2011 following its closure due to structural safety concerns.
At the time of its listing as an Endangered Place, the theater had only a handful of supporters and very few dollars to back-up the vision of a revitalized downtown gathering space. With help from both inside and outside of the community, in just three years over a million dollars was raised to resolve structural issues, replace failing systems, and provide for critical restoration inside and out. On June 20, the ribbons were cut and the Egyptian opened once again.
The resounding success of the Egyptian carries with it many lessons applicable to community landmarks across Oregon:
Commission a feasibility study. The first strategic step for Egyptian advocates was to prepare a market feasibility study to demonstrate that a revitalized theater was viable in Coos Bay. Funded by a seed grant from Restore Oregon, it provided creditability for all future fundraising.
Build a “friends of” coalition. Advocates organized under the umbrella of the Egyptian Theater Preservation Association, a nonprofit through which organization and fundraising could take place. They developed a strategic plan, enlisted skilled board members, and sought training. City staff and volunteers were included every step of the way and the Association made their presence known at fairs, markets, and community events.
Ask for outside help. An initial estimate to reopen the Egyptian came in at $3.7 million, a figure far in excess of what community leaders knew was feasible.
Restore Oregon referred advocates to consultants and other regional experts to identify ways to bring the price tag down to a level that was manageable.
Money attracts money. Raising large sums of money in a small community can be daunting, especially if the cost seems insurmountable. Lining up city and grant support early in the fundraising process built confidence among local donors and created a snowball that attracted others and momentum grew.
Taking a phased approach avoids biting off more than you can chew. While the Egyptian has re-opened there is still work to be done. This summer, planning will begin for phase II which will continue restoration work on the marquee and interior finishes. Phasing the rehabilitation allowed the theater to start generating income and helped grow support within the community.
Across the U.S. and in Oregon, the restoration of historic theaters as movie and events spaces has been a catalyst for the revitalization of downtowns (i.e. the Elsinore in Salem, the Tower in Bend, and the Hollywood in Portland.) But there remain scores of old movie houses that are struggling or closed (the Alger in Lakeview, the Desert in Burns, or the Holly in Medford). An ad hoc committee lead by Erik Andersson of PacificCorp is assembling the resources to conduct a statewide survey of historic theaters. The goal is to document the condition, significance, and operational needs of Oregon’s great movie houses and develop a strategy for their restoration. If history repeats itself, they will regain their role as the iconic heart of Main Street.