Despite turning off its projector more than 20 years ago, downtown Hillsdale’s historic Dawn Theater may soon play movies again.
Members of Hillsdale’s Tax Increment Financing Authority (TIFA) and Director of Economic Development Mary Wolfram said that with the help of a new grant they will be able to renovate the nearly 100 year-old theater to host private events, as well as play old, classic movies on the big screen by 2019.
“The Dawn first opened in September 1919,” Wolfram said. “So we are shooting for a complete rehab and grand opening in September of 2019. Everyone wants to see it stay as a community theater but we also hope to make it a facility where you can show movies.”
TIFA bought the Dawn Theater as well as the Keefer House from previous co-owners Jeff and Marcy Horton for $410,000 in October of 2016. Since then, the city has taken a variety of steps to renovate, repair, and reinvent the theater — including the installation of a new HVAC system and roof renovation.
Mike Harner, the chief staff officer for Hillsdale College, is also a member of the TIFA board and said he hopes to see the building restored to its vintage look.
“There are some great pictures of what it used to look like,” Harner said. “It had a beautiful brick facade and was a classic vaudeville theater. Looking at it now, it’s very pedestrian. But there’s a pretty building under that building.”
Wolfram said she hopes by renovating the Dawn Theater to its antique style, and by offering the occasional classic movie, it would become a great tourist location in town and could host theme nights, such as classic car shows.
“We’re not aiming for the Dawn Theater to be a competitor with first-run movie theaters,” Wolfram said. “The plan is to keep renting it out for events such as wedding receptions, proms, and frat date parties. But we also want to be able to show a classic movie that is gorgeous on the big screen.”
When it was built in 1919, the Dawn Theater was intended to be a classic movie theater. In an interview with The Collegian in October, then-owner Jeff Horton said it underwent major construction changes in the 1930’s to help better the sound quality of more modern films. But in the 1990’s, the theater seating was ripped out, and raised platform seating plus dinner seating was added.
Before it was purchased by TIFA, the Dawn Theater would frequently host college events and serve patrons from their in-house bar.
In last week’s Hillsdale City Council agenda packet, it stated work was ongoing to transfer a Class C liquor license to the Dawn Theater. Wolfram said the liquor license is an attractive selling point for those interested in the building.
When asked if there was any interest or offers to purchase the building, Wolfram and Harner both said there has not been much.
“There’s no serious interest,” Harner said. “If we do secure these grants, there will still be a lot of capital to put into the building.”
Wolfram said the building has a wide variety of repairs that must be completed, including bringing it up to code with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which will make it handicap accessible. But, she said, many of the future revitalization efforts can be made possible by a category of grants from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation for “blight elimination for historic preservation.”
“The owner of the buildings was not redeveloping them,” Wolfram said. “They sat in suspended animation for years and nothing happened. So we’re moving it forward and we’re in the process of applying for a MEDC grant that will be helpful with the laundry list of improvements that need to be made.”
While happy to see the Dawn Theater being repaired back to its original state, Hillsdale resident Penny Swan said she disagrees with the way the city is going about it.
“I think it’s great that they’re doing things with it, but I don’t like that the city is involved,” Swan said. “If this all happened in the private sector I’d be more happy with the result.”
Swan said she was upset the city paid more than the appraised price for the theater, in part due to the package deal that tied its purchase to the Keefer House.
Harner disagreed, and said he believes the Dawn Theater may be the perfect project to help with economic development.
“Throughout the state of Michigan communities have seen revitalization when they have re-development efforts surrounding a local theater,” Harner said. “I don’t see any reason why that wouldn’t work here. If the right person comes along, it’s going to be a great place.”