City pushes Carolina Theatre rivals to work together on plans

Charlotte city officials are pushing two groups with competing visions for the future of the Carolina Theatre to work together to help save the history-rich venue that’s been vacant, on a prominent uptown corner, for more than 30 years.

The two groups on Thursday pitched differing proposals for the city-owned facility to a Charlotte City Council committee. Some of the officials appear to hope the groups can marry their proposals so the city doesn’t have to pick one over the other.

The theater opened in 1927 at 230 N. Tryon St. and became a focal point for live entertainment in the region, attracting stars such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Andy Griffith. It closed in 1978 and was acquired by the city via foreclosure in 1986. A variety of renovation schemes have arisen over the years but none came to fruition. City officials say it’s now a shell of its former self.

The development company CMP Carolina Theatre has plans to buy the property and preserve the theater as part of a luxury condo project called Encore. The project stalled during the recession, but the company still wants to build that project or a similarly high-profile one and restore the theater for public and private use. Alternate concepts could include a boutique hotel or mixed-use office building with restaurant and retail space on the ground floor. The company already has paid the city $250,000 toward the purchase of the theater and now wants to acquire the property for that amount. 

Meanwhile, the nonprofit Foundation For The Carolinas, whose headquarters is next door, wants to buy the property for $1, renovate the theater and run it as a nonprofit venture, providing civic space during the week and the potential to host art or independent films on weekends. The foundation envisions a privately developed office building on the site to become part of a “civic campus” along with the nearby Discovery Place, Dunhill Hotel, main public library and Spirit Square. 

The foundation is already working with the city to create a “pocket park” on the front part of the site where the theater’s now-demolished lobby and façade once sat.

The City Council’s economic development committee listened to the proposals but took no action Thursday. Council members questioned representatives of both groups.

Council member David Howard, who said he attended movies at the theater as a child, said he hopes the two groups can work together, because they both seem to offer similar propositions: Both want the city to essentially give them the theater in exchange for activating the site, and both want to use it in similar ways.

“It's almost the exact same deal,” he said.

The groups, however, say there are significant differences in their proposals. 

CMP, which says its plan would maximize the city’s tax revenues, has spent about $2 million on the project, kept it alive, is the most motivated to complete it and has successfully developed several other difficult uptown projects, including The Trust at Fourth and Tryon streets, according to the company’s proposal. The company also says it secured commitments from prospective restaurant and office tenants and lined up operators who believe the theater can be profitable.

Foundation officials say the idea of an office building is the only viable way to revitalize the theater and they have the necessary expertise, track record of large-scale civic projects and reputation in the community. The foundation also says it can succeed where traditional financing deals have failed, because it has no profit motive and can bring philanthropic dollars to the table.

Brad Richardson, the city’s economic development manager, said after the meeting that the city will likely give the groups until October to work out a partnership. If they cannot, the city could then decide which proposal if any to accept, he said.