Historic theaters: potential economic engines face challenges

A new report on the condition and needs of Oregon’s historic theaters reveals them as potentially significant economic engines as well as cultural touchstones in communities small and large. But they’re challenged by deferred maintenance and other financial and organizational needs, for which the report provides specific recommendations.

Nearly a year of research resulted in “Oregon Historic Theaters: Statewide Survey and Needs Assessment.” The report reveals that the many shuttered or struggling theaters—former cultural and economic linchpins in their communities—remain potential catalysts for downtown revitalization.

The report was produced by five University of Oregon graduate students working with UO Community Planning Workshop Program Director Robert Parker. They documented the condition and needs of the theaters and outlined recommendations for increased success.
Broadway Theater in Malin, southeast of Klamath Falls
Above: Broadway Theater in Malin, southeast of Klamath Falls. Image courtesy Basin Youth for Christ.

The survey identified four key challenges facing historic theaters: tight finances, aging infrastructure, increased competition, and lack of coordination among owners-operators for sharing opportunities.

Ross Ragland Theater in Klamath Falls. Photo by Marti Gerdes.
Above: Ross Ragland Theater in Klamath Falls.
Photo by Marti Gerdes.

Other findings:
•  Fifty-six percent of Oregon’s historic theaters have not been seismically retrofitted, 57 percent do not have automatic fire protection, and 46 percent are not fully ADA compliant.
•  The theaters collectively hosted 62,000 events and brought in $23 million in revenue.
•  The thirty-six theaters responding to the survey reported a combined $20.8 million in deferred maintenance.
• Thirty-two percent had not upgraded to fully digital projection, necessary to show first-run movies and remain more competitive.

The report recommends: (1) theaters undergo comprehensive structural assessments, preferably by an architect trained in historic preservation; and (2) a diverse coalition of nonprofit and state agencies create a statewide “historic theaters initiative” that offers funding, technical support, access to diverse programming, and a mechanism for sharing information and resources.

A five-year “Action Plan” to address theaters’ needs was begun in August by Restore Oregon, Oregon Main Street, the Oregon Heritage Commission, Oregon Film (the Governor’s Office of Film and Video), Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Regional Solutions Team, Pacific Power, and the UO’s Community Service Center.

Travel Oregon provided a matching grant for the survey. Match dollars, acquired through efforts by Parker, came from the US Economic Development Administration (EDA) administered through the UO’s EDA University Center. The inventory was conducted between September 2014 and August 2015.

The findings will be formally presented at the 2015 Oregon Main Street conference in The Dalles on October 7.

Read the report on the Oregon Historic Theaters website. View a video about the project.
Elsinore Theatre in Salem, Oregon
Above: Elsinore Theatre in Salem, Oregon, was designed by Ellis F. Lawrence, former A&AA dean. Courtesy Elsinore Theatre.
Elgin Opera House
Above: Elgin Opera House in the northeast Oregon town of Elgin. Courtesy Elgin Opera House.

Story by Marti Gerdes

Reflecting on the CSC’s Impact

As we enter a new academic year, it’s worth pausing to take stock of our accomplishments this past year. At the base level, we placed 25 students in Oregon communities through the RARE program, engaged 20 students in five projects for the 2015 CPW course, had 10 summer interns, and worked on dozens of projects throughout the state.  That’s what we did, but does it make a difference?

The short answer is yes.  The CSC continues to have positive impact on our clients. As part of our year annual activities, we conduct an online survey of our clients. This year we received 34 responses from about 50 client communities. Following is a brief summary of the findings, with an emphasis on our economic impacts:

  • Eighty percent of our clients had previously worked with the Community Service Center
  • Clients reported that our efforts had led to creation or retention of 94 jobs. Many clients reported that they were unable to estimate job creation and retention; thus the actual impact may be higher.
  • Four of the clients indicated that the project resulted in investment of private capital. The total for three of the projects was $164,000; one client reported that the project might result in a capital investment of $15 million. Several other clients reported they were unable to estimate private investment but that private investment had occurred.
  • 10 clients reported that the project resulted in additional public sector investment. Total public investment as a result of our projects was reported at $1,331,000.
  • Eight of the 14 reporting clients indicated that the project had resulted in action on their or others part.
  • 13 of 14 reporting clients (93% of those responding to this question) reported that the project achieved the intended results.
  • 93% of clients reported their interaction with CSC faculty and staff “excellent” or “good”; 100% of clients reported their interaction with students “excellent” or “good.”
  • 100% of clients reported the products developed for the project were useful
  • 100% of clients indicated they were Satisfied (29%) or Very Satisfied (71%) with the project
  • 100% of clients indicated they would partner with the CSC for future projects


Finally, a few comments from our clients:

  • “RARE participants were extraordinarily talented and hard working personnel. They helped to develop a number of programs here in Sandy, and I would hire either one of them if I had the chance.”
  • “We would not have ever made the goal of a being a net exporter of renewable energy. We also would not have been able to raise funding for the Innovation & Learning Center that now offers higher educational opportunities in rural Lakeview.”
  • “The students were diligent, inquisitive, and enthusiastic. Staff were passionate about the subject and very responsive to changes and requests, and produced a very professional product. Faculty guidance was present and strategic. It was a fun and rewarding experience overall.”
  • “Very good — responsiveness, collaboration, goal/objective definition, communication, professionalism, enthusiasm, and friendliness.”
  • “The position was so successful that the City allocated $20,000 to support a half time position for the Tourism Committee.”
  • “The results of this project created a significant resource that benefited multiple agencies and staff. I greatly appreciated the team’s willingness to allow the project to be refined as it developed which ultimately resulted in a better product.”

We’re looking forward to fall term and having another productive year service the state of Oregon and University of Oregon students!

Best regards,

Bob Parker and Megan Smith