Foundation for the Carolinas' proposal to turn the boarded-up Carolina Theatre on North Tryon Street into a civic meeting hall got a major boost Tuesday, when Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan revealed the bank is giving $5 million to jump-start renovation.
That amounts to 20 percent of the estimated $25 million cost of the project, which calls for closely re-creating the building's original appearance, rather than attempting a complete (and more costly) historic restoration.
Moynihan's surprise announcement came during an unrelated ceremony at Discovery Place, set up to honor Second Harvest Food Bank and the Urban Ministry Center as part of the Charlotte-based bank's Neighborhood Builders charity program.
"We're here to make another contribution to revive downtown Charlotte," Moynihan said. "The money is going to help transform the Carolina Theatre into a place of civic engagement for everyone. The $5 million is a start."
A start for renovation work is not set, but the foundation expects to open the 36,304-square-foot theater in 2016, with former city manager Curt Walton serving as project manager. The theater — located two blocks north of Bank of America's headquarters — celebrates its 90th birthday in 2017. It closed as a movie theater in 1978 and has been largely shuttered in the years since.
Charles Bowman of Bank America said the size of the donation underscores the bank's confidence in the project's success.
"There's always a risk that people don't follow your lead," he said of the need for more donor support. "It's a bold move on our part, and it's saying, 'Join us. Let's move this forward.' "
Foundation for the Carolinas CEO Michael Marsicano called the donation "extraordinary" and said it aligns the Carolina Theatre project with a long series of other Bank of America-backed cultural and arts projects that have transformed whole blocks of uptown.
That list includes the Discovery Place STEM Center, Levine Museum of the New South, ImaginOn, North Carolina Dance Theatre, Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library and McColl Center for Visual Art. The bank also donated the building that now hosts the Foundation for the Carolinas, which shares a wall with the Carolina Theatre. The two sites will be joined as part of the renovation.
"It's a major statement by Bank of America, a statement of commitment to Charlotte, of commitment to Center City development and in particular, of commitment to North Tryon Street development," said Marsicano, adding that the $5 million comes with no strings attached.
A foundation campaign to raise the other $20 million is underway, officials said.
The theater at 230 N. Tryon St. — which will retain its name when reopened — was once considered among the grandest public halls in Charlotte, with wrought-iron chandeliers, reproductions of priceless Cluny weavings, Moorish tiled floors and a Spanish cathedral window.
There have been numerous proposals to revive it in recent decades, all of which failed until the foundation offered in 2012 to buy the site from the city for $1 in exchange for a pledge to reopen the now-gutted building for public use. A competing plan, pitched by N.C. Music Factory developer the Ark Group, called for renovating the site for public entertainment and putting a building in front with commercial customers in mind. That plan was rejected by the City Council.
The foundation's plan is to use the theater as a meeting place where the community can hold large meetings, stage debates and votes, or hear lectures. (Entertainment such as films would not be excluded, but would be restricted to weekends and handled by an outside contractor.)
However, the renovation plan is gaining added traction for its perceived greater role in helping re-energize the North Tryon Street corridor in uptown, an area eclipsed in recent years by highly successful cultural and arts facilities opened on South Tryon Street. The vision for North Tryon will be based on a "civic district" concept that would tie into existing nearby institutions like the Charlotte Mecklenburg Public Library, ImaginOn and Discovery Place, among others. A master plan is expected later this year, with the foundation, Charlotte Center City Partners and Bank of America all playing a role.
Bowman said the success seen on South Tryon helped secure a large donation for the theater work.
"I was just down there on (South Tryon) Friday at the Knight Theater and the symphony filled the hall. There has been an explosion down there and it's vibrant," he said.
"This (donation) is a leadership gift. It's respectful of the past, but ... it's not just about preserving the past. It's looking for what's the next big thing and there are so many possibilities."
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