Several volunteers in recent weeks have unloaded most of the 1,100 theater seats donated to the Sorg Opera House by a movie theater in Northern Kentucky.
But operators of the non-profit organization are hoping for an even bigger contribution this year from the state of Ohio: State Rep. Tim Derickson, R-Hanover Twp., and other local lawmakers have requested $1 million from the state’s capital budget to help give the historic Middletown theater a needed financial jolt to speed restoration.
While little change may be apparent to those who drive past the theater and office building on South Main Street that opened in 1891, Chuck Miller, president of the non-profit Sorg Opera Revitalization Group LLC, says much has quietly been happening.
“It took 33 months to turn it into a non-profit,” Miller said.
Crews have cleared out all the garbage that once filled the building, he said.
And the non-profit organization obtained an economic-impact study from Richard Stock, director of the University of Dayton’s Business Research Group that estimated the four-year impact of the theater — including for businesses nearby that would benefit from the additional customers drawn by the theater — could be $15.7 million, with creation of 151 full-time-equivalent jobs.
That presumes the 55,000-square-foot building’s second- and third-story offices would be 70 percent occupied at Middletown market rental rates and the theater would host as many as 18 shows the first year, growing to as many as 48 in the fourth year.
“Outside the million-dollar request, we’re trying to raise $80,000 so we can do our code work and get the building open so we can have sit-down events in moderate temperatures,” Miller said.
Mild temperatures are critical to that plan because the building lacks heating and cooling, he said.
Also, “We still need to do bathroom repair, exit lighting, the sprinkler system over the stage needs to be re-plumbed, and we need fire-escape doors,” he said.
“This (state) request is really aimed at the theater,” Miller said.
The office-building portion and the theater itself each are expected to cost about $4 million to refurbish and bring up to code.
Sam Smith, a legislative aide for Derickson, confirmed the state representative requested $1 million in the two-year budget for the Sorg, in cooperation with Reps. Wes Retherford, R-Hamilton; Margy Condit, R-Liberty Twp.; and State Sen. Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp.
“It looks like they’re hoping for an early April introduction date for the bill,” Smith said, adding it is difficult to estimate how likely it will be that any given item will remain in the budget bill, which could take a couple months to be approved after it is introduced.
Although Coley requested the money in the Senate, he said he has repeatedly told Sorg supporters that, “while the state might be interested in getting you over the goal line, we’re not starting you out — we’re not just putting money into something that doesn’t have enough community support to get it over the finish line.”
“I can’t speak for the other legislators, but from my standpoint, it has to be that they’ve gotten the bulk of the money on their own,” Coley said. “We don’t put the first dollars in, typically — we put the last dollars in.”
Rick Pearce, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce serving Middletown, Monroe and Trenton, said the project would be an important spark for downtown redevelopment.
“The Sorg is more than just a magnificent theater and features a companion building that hosts street level store fronts, office spaces and a fourth floor ballroom,” Pearce said. “Taken as a whole, the complex will spark downtown’s cultural, retail and educational economy as well as provide a major anchor point for future growth and development.”
With 2.2 million people living within a 30-minute radius of downtown Middletown, the Sorg could help make the city a destination, he said.
“We’re not by any means going to cure Middletown’s issues, but we’re going to be able to contribute to the local economy,” Miller said.