MANISTEE — Downtown movie theaters fell casualty to the rise of the suburban strip mall, but now that much of the state’s economic development plans focus on urban cores, locally owned independent cinemas are getting ready for their close-up.
One theater in particular that’s getting some attention is the historic Vogue Theatre in downtown Manistee.
Crews recently started on the renovation work, although backers are still wrapping up fundraising efforts to pay for the project.
With friends like filmmaker Michael Moore, who also helped in the effort to renovate the State Theater in Traverse City, the project that got started in 2011 is finally coming to fruition. In addition to helping the theater’s fundraising effort, Moore has also signed on to assist with programming once the establishment is back up and running.
“A lot of communities are back alive because of the rebirth of downtown entertainment sectors and specialty shops,” said Steve Brower, treasurer for the Vogue and chair of the organization’s capital campaign. “We’re a long ways away, but we’re seeing some deterioration in interest of the big box stores.”
Organizers at Vogue Theatre are working to follow the same model Traverse City’s State Theater used, which calls for hefty community and volunteer support to stay sustainable. To that end, the capital campaign has no shortage of donors large and small. The project even received an early $100,000 gift from an anonymous donor.
Other contributors to the $2.25 million renovation include the Frey Foundation, Consumers Energy and West Michigan Bank & Trust, among others. When MiBiz spoke with an official about the project, an additional $500,000 state grant was pending approval.
Boston Light and Sound — a top-tier production company with experience outfitting events including Sundance Film Festival, international music tours, and even Martin Scorsese’s private screening room at Universal Pictures — is also offering its services to the project at an extremely reduced rate.
Two Grand Rapids-based firms, Orion Construction and Integrated Architecture, are also involved in the project.
Beyond the fundraising effort, Brower said the theater would rely on a small group of paid employees, but primarily lean on volunteers to keep costs down and pass those savings on to patrons.
In statement on the Vogue Theatre’s website, Traverse City Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Bryan Crough reflected on the impact the renovation to the State Theater is having on his city’s downtown.
“Downtowns are complex organisms that have declined over time and when they come back, it happens one piece at a time,” he said. “The State Theatre was a huge piece falling into place. All these things grow one thing after another. … It’s a very organic process. It takes time, it takes hard work and you have to pay attention to everything.”
Piggybacking on Crough’s statements, Brower said the energy around the downtown is already picking up with interest from restaurateurs and others, due in part to the focus on the Vogue.
The Vogue Theatre had been a priority for the Manistee Downtown Development Authority for years, said Travis Alden, the organization’s executive director.
“Not only is (the theater) an iconic building, it’s a sort of anchor in a historic downtown like ours,” he said. “We looked at the (restoration effort) as, ‘If not us, then who?’”
When the theater closed for good in 2005, the DDA bought the building and invested in some minor improvements, eventually commissioning a feasibility study to see if the downtown could support a functioning theater again.
The process lead to discussions with people at the State Theater, which then resulted in the ongoing grassroots nonprofit effort.
In terms of business recruitment, Alden said Manistee is still missing out on some opportunities in retail and the arts and entertainment, but he added that the Vogue is central to some of the developments coming to bear.
“Obviously, this isn’t something that happens overnight, but we’re looking at this as a game-changer for Manistee,” he said. “We have more people kicking the tires on storefronts and property, in some cases more than we know what to do with. For a small rural community like ours, sometimes that’s half the battle.”