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Hanover Theater renovations grind to halt

The owners of the Hanover Theater have postponed renovations
of the historic building.

The owners of the Hanover Theater have postponed renovations
of the historic building.

What was once planned as a December 2008 reopening has now
been put on hold indefinitely.

“Over the past summer our planning and revitalization group
did an analysis and came to the conclusion that the atmosphere, infrastructure
and attitude are not conducive to a successful revitalization at this point,”
said David Leske, general manager of Historic Hanover. The project’s backers,
who call themselves Casual Arts, formed the group to work on the theater.

Leske said the backers purchase and renovate historic
theaters across the country with the intention of spurring redevelopment and
had been optimistic their work in Hanover
could do the same in concert with efforts from the Hanover Area Chamber of

This past fall, the chamber had convened several committees
of local businesspeople and enlisted the nonprofit Pennsylvania Downtown
, with the goal of
bringing more life back to the downtown.

“The final decision came down to what the goal is: to
provide that spark at the right time, to be that attraction,” Leske said.

Backers feel that if the theater reopened under current
conditions, it would risk failure and debt, he said.

No single factor made the backers decide to postpone
renovations, Leske said, but he said they have concerns that the area around
the theater is not pedestrian-friendly and has excessive vehicle noise, a lack
of parking and poor traffic flow.

In addition, he said there is “a generally negative attitude
about revitalization and the absence of a ‘Downtown Plan,’ which identifies the
problems and provides solutions to guide the revitalization.”

The backers have compiled their own comprehensive plan,
which has not been made public.

Leske said it includes recommendations for changing traffic
flow and zoning and for closing certain streets to create a pedestrian mall.

“The ideas that are presented are very impressive, although
I am afraid that the ‘naysayers’ might call it lofty or unachievable,” he said.

He isn’t sure when or if things will move forward.

“The members of our parent organization who advise us on
planning and revitalization are keeping an eye on developments in Hanover, and ultimately
it will be their decision as to when to move the Hanover Theater project onto
the front burner,” Leske said.

“It is certainly a possibility that the decision could be
made to cancel the project, but again, due to the unpredictable nature of the
process, there are no deadlines or hard dates,” he said.

The postponement is not due to the economic downturn, he

He declined to provide the amount of money investors had
already sunk into the theater or to provide an estimate for renovations.

Similar projects have cost $3 million to $4 million, he
said, but the Hanover
project might cost less because some of the contractors have donated their work
as in-kind services.

Contacted in late December, Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce
president Gary Laird said he was unaware of the postponement of renovations.

When asked what he thought of the stoppage, Laird said
“Sure, we would like to see it renovated.”

Hanover’s revitalization
efforts will be able to withstand the loss of the renovation project, said Bill
Fontana, executive director of the Pennsylvania
Downtown Center.

“For its size, it’s got fairly diverse retail,” he said.
“Putting something like a theater project on hold is not overly debilitating to
its economic vitality.”

And while theaters have the potential to spark economic
development, Fontana said Hanover isn’t in a unique spot by
potentially losing that draw.

“The unfortunate reality is we’re going to see a lot of
projects like that, slow or on hold during these economic conditions,” he said.

Things had been looking up for the downtown Hanover landmark, which
opened in 1928 as one of the premier silent movie houses in the region.

“When it was built, it was on the cutting edge,” Leske said.
“People came from across the country.”

The State Theater, as it was originally called, remained in
its original use until it was sold to an antiques dealer in 1986.

For the better part of the next 20 years, the Hanover
Theater was allowed to quietly rot from within.

The antiques dealer originally planned to reopen it as an
antiques mall but ran into financial difficulties and ended up turning it into
a warehouse.

Water flooded the sub-basement to a depth of 8 feet and ate
away at the beams holding up the marquee.

In 2007, it appeared the theater’s resurrection was at hand:
A group of investors bought the building and began to stabilize it for a
December 2008 reopening as a performing-arts center.

Contractors hired by the investors performed “triage” on the
theater beginning last February – plugging leaks, shoring up the crumbling
marquee, running in electricity for wall sconces and clearing out the
trailer-loads of items left by the previous owners.

Despite its years of neglect, the building remained
structurally sound, Leske said, and mainly required cosmetic renovations.

For example, former owners left ornate plaster moldings
intact but bored holes in some and painted over many in bright teal, blue and

Much is left of the original artwork: everything from
stairwell railings to the sides of the seats (only one is left) are carved with
intricate designs that prominently feature an “S” for the State Theater.

The sloping floor, long stripped of its seats, is choked
with boxes – many of which contain the components to re-assemble a working

Leske said he already has worked with contractors to draw up
a multitude of plans for the theater, including retrofitting the building to
run on geothermal heat, installing earth-friendly insulation and reworking the
air-conditioning systems.

But for now, restoring the theater to its former grandeur is
indefinitely on hold.

“It has to be saved,” Leske said. “It would break my heart
if they decided to abandon it.”

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