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Historic theater in western Kentucky gets a funding boost

An old theater with an ornate but aging facade has a marquis that thanks citizens for supporting it.
Derek Operle
It could take about $5 million to reopen Paducah's historic Columbia theater, but that hasn't slowed the enthusiasm within a group that's raising money to save it.

The Paducah City Commission approved last week a pledge of $500,000 to Columbia Art House, the group fighting to save the former theater, for the restoration of its deteriorating facade.

The former Columbia theater building has stood in downtown Paducah for nearly a century. But, since it closed in the late 1980s, the old Hollywood glitz of the western Kentucky movie palace has faded.

Now, thanks to a contingent funding match from the City of Paducah, a local restoration effort for the shuttered theater has some wind in its sails.

The Paducah City Commission approved last week a pledge of $500,000 to Columbia Art House, the group fighting to save the theater, for the restoration of its deteriorating facade. Those funds are contingent on Columbia Art House raising $1 million by June 30, 2026.

Paducah City Commissioner Sandra Wilson called the former theater, located at 504 Broadway Street, “a treasure” of the community during the meeting, and called for the McCracken County Fiscal Court to join the City in pledging funding toward the restoration.

McCracken County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer said the fiscal court will hear from a group representing the Columbia Art House during its Feb. 26 meeting.

Darlene Mazzone has led the restoration effort since its initial launch in 2013, when a feasibility study identified the theater’s potential to be “a cultural asset and economic driver” in the city and in the wider region. She said the contingent funding announcement is “an incredible step forward” for the project and that it’s arrived at a crucial juncture for the aging structure of the building.

“We are at a point in time where we really need to address the stability of the structure,” said Mazzone. “Our contractors, our architects are looking at the building and using words like ‘dire situation.’”

Mazzone said the estimated cost to finish Phase 1 of the Columbia restoration effort, which includes stabilizing the exterior structure and restoring the facade, is around $1.5 million. That’s the combined total of the contingent city funding and its required match.

Though Mazzone has personal, sentimental reasons for wanting to restore the theater, she also wants to save the building because of its historical stature in Paducah’s downtown.

“To lose another historic building in downtown Paducah would be a travesty. We've already lost the Kresge building on down the corridor, [and] the Katterjohn building, of course, is probably going to be demolished still,” she said. “This structure will be 100 years old in 2027, and has been a vital part of this community.”

In the little more than a decade since the restoration effort began, local volunteers with Mazzone’s group have helped to clean out the former theater and prepare it for restoration. Grants have also helped fund the removal of asbestos from the structure and the restoration of the fire curtain.

“We've done about all the boots on the ground work that we could possibly do,” Mazzone said. “We have blood, sweat and tears [poured into the building] in terms of cleaning out, pulling up carpet, taking out the old concession stand and ripping down peeling paint and wall stuff.”

So how much would it take to open the Columbia’s doors again? Mazzone said the total cost – “without all the bells and whistles” – could be as high as $5 million, according to the Ohio-based architectural team that designed the restoration plan.

Mazzone estimates that total fundraising efforts so far, including donations, grants and tax credits, have yielded as much as $400,000 toward the building’s restoration – a little less than half of the amount the group would have to raise to capitalize on the City of Paducah’s pledge.

Some of that money has been used for previously executed portions of the building’s restoration, but Mazzone said the group has more than $250,000 on-hand that can be put toward the match – leaving around $750,000 to be raised.

That doesn’t discourage Mazzone, who believes the Columbia Art House could be ready to open in time for the centennial anniversary of the theater’s opening in April 2027.

“I think it's possible,” she said. “I think that once the scaffolding goes up on the outside of that building and the lights are on and the marquee is bright and shining … it's going to generate a lot of interest and, hopefully, a lot of commitment.”

Copyright 2024 WKMS. To see more, visit WKMS.

Derek Operle

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