Mount Healthy mobilizes to revive the Main, a long-abandoned 1915 theater building

Effort coincides with bicentennial
Posted at 12:00 PM, Feb 11, 2017

MOUNT HEALTHY, Ohio -- There's no marquee. No obvious markings. No signs that this nondescript building at 7428 Hamilton Ave. was ever more than boarded-up brick and mortar.

But that could change. An effort is underway in Mount Healthy to save the Main, a 1915-era movie theater long since abandoned. But it will be a multi-year effort that could cost upward of $1 million or more.

"This building's been degrading for decades," said Mount Healthy Mayor James Wolf. "Honestly, driving past it, you wouldn't even realize it's a theater."

That could soon change.

Deemed historically significant -- a working theater for 56 years -- the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority acquired it in 2015 through the Hamilton County Land Reutilization Corp., or Landbank, which it manages, and spent nearly $41,000 on repairs -- fixes to protect it from further deterioration, like boarding windows, gutting the interior and making roof repairs.

Mount Healthy's Main Theater building doubled as an auction house and screen-printing shop following its closure in 1971. The stage and seats have been removed. (Photo provided by Fred Russell)

In early 2016, the port turned the theater back over to Mount Healthy. The ball is now in its court. A working group, comprising city and community representatives and members of the Mount Healthy Renaissance Project, a community development corporation, has been meeting monthly to come up with a plan.

Among the first steps: The team recently took trips to similar theater rehabs in Sharonville, Covedale and Bellevue, just to name a few.

The conclusion? Their space should be a performing arts center, a home for concerts, plays, weddings and -- just like before -- movies.

"When we did our research, the theaters that seemed to be thriving had multi uses," Councilwoman Jenni Moody said. "We learned a lot from the other communities … one of the balances (for us) will be piecing together the funding and the timeline so people don't run out of enthusiasm."

To that effect, Wolf said they are starting slowly, but on purpose. Per early estimates, the project could cost anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million to complete.

Fundraising has yet to hit its stride -- officials are still debating which entity will handle the money, be it the city, its Community Improvement Corp., the Renaissance group or another party -- but they've landed at least one minor win, and there could be some activity onsite "soon," said Wolf.

Karen Arnett, president of the Renaissance Project, said they've been awarded a Pipeline grant from the State Historic Preservation Office. The $4,000 award will help the city hire a consultant to apply for the National Register of Historic Places. Several Over-the-Rhine buildings have received Pipeline funds in recent months. The program is in its 18th round.

"It's exciting," Wolf said. "Getting on the Historic Registry is a process and cost a lot of money, and Ohio has grants just to help you apply. Hopefully that would open the door to some historic tax credits. We think that's really important."

On Tuesday, Wolf dedicated funds, roughly $1,000, for renderings, 2-D and 3-D, using the mayor's discretionary fund. And, since the Main includes two street-facing retail spaces, a popup shop is in the works to showcase those drawings, among other items. Public Works has been tasked with turning on water and electric.

And the timing couldn't be better.

Mount Healthy is celebrating its bicentennial -- its 200th anniversary -- throughout 2017. The celebration hits full swing this summer.

"The theater was quite popular with everybody in town," said Jim Lowenburg, a Mount Healthy resident and small business owner. "With the bicentennial, there are several activities, reunions bringing people back into the city, so that will be an opportunity to generate some interest and maybe develop some fundraising ideas."

Mount Healthy officials are planning to open a popup shop in the retail spaces fronting the Main Theater as a means to build momentum for fundraising efforts to refurbish the structure.

"It won't be a quick project," he added. The Main is "basically a shell." There's no stage now; no seating inside, following its brief stints as an auction house and a screen-printing shop. "But hopefully it will take two years, not 10" to complete, he said.

In addition to the renderings, the popup, which could open late spring, would house bicentennial memorabilia -- and possibly specific locally crafted goods. The city says it will also showcase work done by University of Cincinnati Department of Art, Architecture and Planning (DAAP) students, who, in collaboration this fall, drafted floor plans, elevations and briefs on the building.

After the bicentennial, the city hopes to turn it over to a potential tenant.

The best fit? A dessert outfit/coffee shop, though other ideas may also be suitable in the near term.

"Right now, it's not very pretty, and to be honest, it might not be that pretty when it's a popup," Wolf said. "But we're going to make it functional."

Twitter: @_LizEngel