Historic theaters research nets national award for UO graduate students

Note: the following article was published on the AAA Blog on March 15.  CPW received the award at the American Planning Association’s national conference in Phoenix on April 8, 2016.

1859 Magazine also referenced the study in it’s article “Holding on to Historic Theaters.”

Holding on to Historic Theaters

Story by Marti Gerdes

A blueprint to preserve, rehabilitate, and promote historic theaters in Oregon has earned national honors in applied research for a team of University of Oregon graduate students who analyzed the physical and fiscal conditions of more than fifty historic theaters statewide. But they didn’t stop there: Their findings spurred them to also recommend a five-year plan to help both the aging buildings and the often-underfunded organizations that operate them.

The American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) recognized the team’s efforts with the 2016 AICP Student Project Award in Applied Research for their report, “Oregon Historic Theaters: Statewide Survey and Needs Assessment.” The AICP will present the award April 5 in Phoenix, Arizona, at the American Planning Association’s annual national conference.

The competitive award recognizes the outstanding work by graduate students in the UO’s Community and Regional Planning and Public Administration programs, housed in the Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management (PPPM), and the Historic Preservation Program.

Elsinore Theatre
Above: Elsinore Theatre in Salem, Oregon, was designed by Ellis F. Lawrence, former A&AA dean. Courtesy Elsinore Theatre.

Valerie Hubbard, AICP president, noted that the UO project was “selected from a very competitive pool of applicants, and this award is a testimony to your hard work and commitment to excellence. We anticipate your continued contributions to the profession.”

The student research team included Rodney Bohner, John Jackson, Dana Nichols, and Craig Wiroll.

Their research revealed that the many shuttered or struggling theaters—former cultural and economic linchpins in their communities—remain potential catalysts for downtown revitalization but face deferred maintenance and financial and organizational challenges.

“Many of these ornate and extravagant buildings were placed in smaller towns and neighborhoods that relied on the economic income of these theaters,” says Wiroll, a public administration graduate student. “Once the market for cinema and film dropped off, the cornerstones of these communities were decimated. That resulted in the abandonment of these buildings—buildings that we found could be rehabilitated and utilized as an economic asset rather than an abandoned liability.”

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.

Team members were captivated by what they learned during the nearly yearlong project.

“What I have discovered through my research is that every theater in Oregon, and in the country, has a unique and important story to tell, and I feel that part of our job here at the Community Service Center is to broadcast those stories,” Nichols, a community and regional planning graduate student, wrote on the team’s blog. “Theaters are community assets [and] community treasures.”

Bohner, a historic preservation graduate student, said the team was “surprised by creative solutions that theater operators are using to ‘turn the tide.’ We were [also] definitely surprised by the number of loyal historic theater fans and historians who believe in the ability to save these theaters and offered to help throughout the project. We are thrilled to see the use of the findings and recommendation from our project to help guide the next steps in saving these cultural icons.”

Community Planning Workshop (CPW) Project Coordinator Aniko Drlik-Muehleck lauded the students for both their work and work ethic.

“It is very challenging to complete a project of this scope while maintaining a full course load,” she said. “The team powered through, and I am so proud of the personal growth I witnessed in them.”

Broadway Theater in Malin
Above: Broadway Theater in Malin, southeast of Klamath Falls. Image courtesy Basin Youth for Christ.

A five-year action plan to address the theaters’ needs began August 2015 by the UO’s Community Service Center and partners 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, and Pacific Power.

Community Planning Workshop students have a solid history of winning AICP competitions.

“This is the fourth national AICP award CPW has received since 2004,” Program Director Robert Parker said. “The award validates our pedagogical approach and underscores the ability of students to complete professional quality work.” CPW students previously won AICP awards in 2004, 2009, and 2011.

“We know from external reviews of our program that we admit excellent students and our curriculum and experiential learning does an exceptional job of enhancing their skills and abilities,” added Richard Margerum, PPPM department head. “That this is the fourth time a CPW project has won this award really reinforces that we are a national leader in experiential learning.”

The project is already making a difference for the theaters and their communities, Parker noted.

“Travel Oregon, the project funder, is delighted with the results and is already working to market historic theaters to Oregon travelers. Restore Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for historic preservation, received grant funding to develop a toolbox for theaters on key issues like ADA accessibility, structural assessment, and business planning. CPW is part of the Restore Oregon team and is excited to continue the work.”

Winning an award for their efforts was a bonus for the students, all of whom were won over by the theaters they visited during their research.

“As a lifelong film aficionado, I couldn’t have asked for a better project,” Wiroll says. “Being able to combine a lifelong passion for film with applied research that will help to improve communities in the great state of Oregon is straight out of a Hollywood script, and the AICP is our Academy Award. I can’t promise any sequels, but I hope the state of historic theaters in Oregon continues to improve due to our research. Go support your local historic theater!”

The show must go on

This year, the Community Planning Workshop at the University of Oregon explored its glamorous side with the Oregon Historic Theaters Project. Robert Parker, CPW Director and Project Advisor, along with Aniko Drlik-Muehleck, Project Manager, hit the road with student team members Dana Nichols, Rodney Bohner, John Jackson, and Craig Wiroll to explore these incredible cultural gems that have anchored downtown’s and delighted audiences throughout the state of Oregon for over 50 years.

CPW undertook a 3-part investigation of historic theaters and their potential to act as economic development catalysts. Phase 1 located theaters across the state that qualified as “historic” (50 years or older).

Phase 2 began in January 2015 with a needs assessment surveys sent to theaters asking operators and owners to explain their business model and describe their needs related to building rehabilitation and maintenance, equipment upgrades, programming, and marketing.

Phase 3 coordinated marketing, where CPW worked with theater operators and owners along with regional tourism agencies to explore marketing strategies and link theater professionals with Oregon’s tourism industry to help theaters capitalize on their historic and entertainment value.

This project comes at a particularly critical moment for downtown theaters. The rising cost of maintenance and operation has dealt a hefty financial blow and forced many theaters to close their doors. Movie theaters, for example, face $50,000 minimum to upgrade to digital projection systems. In a town with less than 3000 people, how can a theater afford such an investment? As it turns out, not too many as you will see by the statistics and theatre fans in this video documenting the Oregon Historic Theatres project.

Together with Oregon Main Street, Pacific Power, and Travel Oregon (project partners), CPW hopes this project will build on the energy of grassroots movements across the state and the documentation, needs assessments, and tourism coordination will answer questions and will generate resources so historic theaters can adapt. And as they say in theatre, the show must go on!

Special to curtain call to Craig Wiroll, who took on the CPW video challenge and produced one amazing video that truly captures the story of this project. Thank you Craig.

About the Oregon Historic Theatres Team from left to right:

 Aniko Drlik-Muehleck, Dana Nichols, Rodney Bohner, John Jackson, Craig Wiroll

Aniko Drlik-Muehleck, originally from Berkeley, CA, is now a Master of Community and Regional Planning candidate at the University of Oregon and participated in the Community Service Center’s RARE AmeriCorps Program – Resource Assistance for Rural Environments with the City of Pendleton from 2012-2013. 

Craig Wiroll is a journalist and farmer-turned-Master of Public Administration student with high hopes of changing the world. For now, he’s just going to focus on the UO Campus. Craig is also a two-time AmeriCorps alum from Wisconsin, who enjoys public radio, hiking and food. 

Dana Nichols is a first year Community and Regional Planning student who enjoys cooking, gardening, and playing with her cat, Dinkus. Although she is a New Jersey native and could live off their delicious pizza, Dana would much rather be watching a Packer game in Wisconsin or sailing on a boat in Maine. 

John Jackson is a Midwesterner is a first year Community and Regional Planning Masters student at the University of Oregon. Growing up both in Chicago, Illinois and Lincoln, Nebraska, Jackson is an avid geographer who has taken his talents to the Pacific Northwest to study the craft of urban planning and the unique ways of land use, built environment, and transportation that U of O has to offer. 

Rodney Bohner is a concurrent Master’s student in Community and Regional Planning as well as Historic Preservation at the University of Oregon. Originally from Pennsylvania, Rodney has worked on cultural resource projects in the Keystone state as well as Colorado, West Virginia, and Massachusetts.