A 1919 picture of the Dawn Theatre, the style to which TIFA hopes to restore the current theatre. Mary Wolfram | Courtesy

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.”


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Thomas Novelly
Collegian Editor-in-Chief, Thomas Novelly was born in Novi, Michigan, but was raised in Franklin, Tennessee, making him a self-proclaimed "Yankee gone South." Thomas began writing for The Collegian as a sophomore, and since has served as a reporter, columnist, and Assistant City News Editor. He has also worked for two major publications, interning at the Washington Free Beacon in D.C. and The Tennessean in Nashville. His work has been seen in National publications such as CBS News, National Review Online, Stars And Stripes, and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
  • Tyler Groenendal

    I look forward to the article in 2022 when the Dawn closes…again.

  • Ellsworth_Toohey

    The irony of so many college employees and those connected with the college being involved in goverment grant programs and command economy practices is not being lost on many.

    • disqus_odKVC5cL1k

      The tax money is already gone to the state. Now either the city can get it back, or some other city will take it. Would it be better spent on fixing the roads, yes, but you aren’t getting a grant approved to do that, it doesn’t fit the command planners at the state or national level. So the trick is to get grants to pay for things that the city needs to buy anyway, like the fire truck, then get a grant for the truck and put the money not spent to the roads. See, you just used grant money to pay for the road, you just couldn’t send the package in stating it that way. The city financial condition makes it pretty easy to make the case there’s no money for whatever is asked for.

      The budget is already in the red, any money that can be brought in from anything should be attempted. The Dawn or Keefer, those are both losing propositions. The buildings, until they started to fall into the street could have been left to rot. Getting grant money also requires local money, so while the local loss is smaller, it’s still wasted money, and unless there is a buyer waiting in the wings on either of them, and return more than the city cut to the city, it’s a simple case of a bad investment. With a shrinking fund balance, the city can hardly afford to make these mistakes.

      • Ellsworth_Toohey

        Not in the case however.

        It was TIFA’s decision (the city) to use taxpayer money to buy the Keefer and Dawn. They just as easily could have funded a business incubator instead of a business owner who made a poor decision and found some suckers at the city willing to bail him out.

        And neither building was “falling into the street”. In fact the private sector owner had done quite a bit to stabilize the Keefer. A private sector owner I might add who paid property taxes. Now with the city owning those property taxes are lost as revenue.

        Indeed, there is alot to be said for letting buildings that are in distress stay in the hands of the private sector, because cities have tools such as blight ordinances and the like, which can force a owner to maintain their property.

      • Ellsworth_Toohey

        And in my response to your response, in re-reading it it appears we entirely agree.

  • Penny Swan

    I am not really sure what Mr Harner is disagreeing with?? Mary Wolfram told me herself the TIFA did not want the Dawn, but to get the Keefer they had to buy the Dawn. Mary told me that in person at a TIFA board meeting.

    • disqus_odKVC5cL1k

      Why would they want the Keefer? At some point a building is no longer viable for rehabilitation, and lacking some historic happening there, it’s just an old building that is past its useful life. It’s been sitting empty for how long? Based solely on age, it will have asbestos, lead paint, obsolete wiring, virtually all mechanical systems obsolete. What is the thing that gets past all of these objections, and makes it a case to keep it standing.

      Look, I like the building, it looks cool, but that alone is not sufficient to justify keeping it, or spending more than it’s worth to effectively keep a brick shell around a basically new interior building. Forget ADA costs, I’m still trying to see where that accessible front door is going in.

      • Penny Swan

        I can not disagree with one word you have said.
        I would love to see that old building brought back to life and thrive, but not at the cities expense.

      • Ellsworth_Toohey

        In an earlier article the collegian estimate it would take $3 million to bring the Keefer to the state the college wanted to see it be in for the use as a hotel. That in addition to the purchase price.

        The only room shortage identified in the area was during peak times such as parents weekend (2) and the CCA’s (3).

        That’s ~15 days of room shortages. Occupancy, ADR and RevPar are the factors hotels look at in placing properties. While motels can work with short seasons, and occupancy rates below 50% when the occupancy is spread over a good part of the year, none of those factors can be optimized.

        And it’s why the private sector hasn’t done anything.

        Instead of the city spending $410K for these albatrosses, they’d have been far better off to spend $10K in a marketing campaign to promote AirBnB in the area, which is far better to address this peak demand.