The lights will be turned off once again at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Davenport, this time the victim of the economic downturn as well as fears that the almost-90-year-old building’s physical systems could fail at any moment.
The onetime movie palace, which stopped showing first-run films in 1977, will remain open and honor all dates committed through June 5. After that, the Eastern Iowa Community College District, which owns the building, will honor contracts for several events booked through the fall and then weatherize the building to prevent any further deterioration while trying to find a new tenant.
Since 2008, the historic building has been leased by Capitol Theatre LLC. At first, the organization struggled to gain momentum. But getting enough patrons through the doors has not been an issue of late. General manager Lon Bozarth said recent shows at the 1,500-capacity building have averaged 500 patrons. Some events, such as Burlesque Le’Moustache, a Gov’t Mule concert and a big-screen telecast of the premiere of “American Pickers” — a cable show featuring two LeClaire, Iowa, men — drew crowds of 1,000. A Bryan Adams acoustic concert this winter nearly filled the theater with an audience of 1,400.
The difficulty, Bozarth said, has been in securing a loan for the minimum $2 million in renovations needed to modernize the electrical, plumbing and other mechanical systems in the building. When the college district leased the theater to Bozarth’s company, it did so for a onetime payment of $1 with the trade-off being that Capitol Theatre LLC would be responsible for maintenance and remodeling costs.
“The theater had started to really get some traction, but that took a while. But it really was a completely separate issue than trying to operate the theater,” he said. “What made our final decision was we were basically 100 percent responsible for the maintenance on a 90-year-old building, and at any time, some problem resulting from old plumbing or electrical or whatever that would be likely to happen in a building that old would be enough to put us out of business.”
Bozarth said he has applied for loans at more than a half-dozen banks since reopening the doors of the Capitol in 2008 and has been turned down by all of them because of the financial climate that developed shortly after taking over the building at the corner of 3rd and Ripley streets.
“We could not have picked a worse time,” he said. “We were a bit naive when we took it over, and I think everybody thought that because we had secured these historic tax credits that that would help offset some of the construction costs, that it would be easier to finance it. But we walked straight into the teeth of a very severe banking crisis, and it just simply hasn’t recovered.”
Several banks advised Bozarth that the only institution that would have something to gain by investing in the building would be the community college district, but he did not ask college officials to finance renovations because he was aware the district was facing its own fiscal issues.
The college district has renovated the upper floors of the building, which are used for classroom space. While the Kahl Education Center and the Capitol share some main electrical and plumbing systems, there are multiple lines, which is why both parts of the building could not be renovated. Eventually, the college district would like to move toward completely separating the mechanical systems because it is not interested in modernizing those that are necessary to the theater’s operation.
“Our mission is as an educational institution, and it’s not in the theater business or in the financial business,” said Alan Campbell, the college district’s associate director for communications. “It didn’t seem an appropriate use of our monies to be doing that kind of thing.”
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Formal approval of the Capitol’s closing is expected to be on the agenda for the regular April 19 meeting of the college district’s governing board. The college district also is awaiting the results of a study to determine how much it will cost to keep the building closed. Campbell said a proposal is being put together to hire a real estate company to represent the district in finding a new tenant for the Capitol that would be able to secure the financing needed to modernize the building.
“It’s been very visible the last few months. Frankly, the theater is very near and dear to many of our hearts, so we’re very hopeful that we’ll be able to find someone else, another company, that will come in and pick up where Lon (Bozarth) has left off, and hopefully pick up with some of the excitement that he’s managed to generate here,” Campbell added.
“The Capitol Theatre is a tremendous historical and cultural asset to Davenport and the entire Quad- Cities. It is our sincere hope that another company will recognize its value and step in to operate the theater at some time in the future,” Patricia Keir, Eastern Iowa chancellor, wrote in an e-mail distributed to members of the Capitol Theatre Task Force Committee, which was formed four years ago.