By Jan Worth-Nelson
On a chilly, windy Thursday night, downtown Flint celebrated as a cherished 90-year-old landmark, the Capitol Theater, once almost given up for dead, lit up into a brilliant new life. Hundreds of bundled-up Flint folks, savoring nostalgia and curiosity, poured into the theater for an official opening ceremony and a chance to see the results of a $37 million, 18-month top-to-bottom restoration.
Many were there for the first time, many for the first time in decades.
From both officials on the stage and regular people wandering from the balcony to the basement after the formal program, superlatives flew.
“I truly think that we are among the most fortunate cities, because how many even bigger cities have a movie house like this that has been restored? I love it so much,” said Elizabeth Perkins-Harbin, a Flint native and daughter of a Sitdown Striker.
Her husband Don, also Flint born and bred, said, “It takes me back to the days when things were booming, of prosperity, that nostalgia of the great old theaters — just a fantastic job of restoring it, just fantastic.”
“My favorite part is they kept the stars — it was what I remember most –it was so mystical,” said Edythe Peake of Flint, who grew up in Civic Park. And now it’s mystical again, she said.
Her husband Walt Peake added seeing the theater come back to life triggered many happy memories. “When we were kids we’d come down here, our folks would drop us off, and we’d stay downtown the whole day,” he said.
“Who says that good things aren’t happening in Flint?” Mayor Karen Weaver exulted from the stage, where she and four other leaders of the renovation effort delivered celebratory brief remarks before the 1,600-seat venue opened up for tours. Relating that she used to feel sad when she went by the theater, which had been unused for decades, she said, “To see this transformation–we should be proud.”
“Momentum” was a recurring theme of the opening ceremony remarks — all the speakers praising the results of partnership for the project between the primary partners–the nonprofit Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, and the Whiting Auditorium/Flint Cultural Center, which will manage the venue. Other partners and funders in various relationships to the project include the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Hagerman Foundation, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, the State of Michigan and the City of Flint.
“Flint is worth the investment and we are open for business,” Weaver said.
“If you walk downtown you can really feel the momentum,” Tim Herman, president of the URC, stated. In the last 10 years alone, he noted, $100 million has been invested in downtown by “pioneers who have done great for downtown”: Ghassan Saab, Phil Shaltz, Troy Farah, Gary Hurand — investors of URC in the “private” side of the private-public arrangement.
Affectionately referring to the 90-year old structure as “this old gal,” Herman said, “The importance of the Capitol restoration extends far beyond this building itself. This theater is a symbol of the resurgence of downtown and is part of the epicenter that is humming with commercial, residential and public space.”
In addition to the theater, Herman noted the restored building includes 25,000 square feet of attached business space and created 82 jobs. He predicted the theater will play a major role in continuing to make downtown Flint, “a place where people want to work, live, and definitely, play.”
Phil Hagerman, CEO of Flint-based Diplomat Pharmacy which employs 1,500 at its Grand Blanc headquarters, said the Capitol brought back many memories. “When I was in this theater the first time, I was less than 10 years old…in my teens I sat in the balcony if I was lucky enough to get a date, which wasn’t that often,” he joked.
Like Herman, Hagerman said the Capitol reopening represents more than just one building. “To see the momentum come back has been unbelievable. As a businessman, I’m so excited about what this will bring back.” Hagerman and his wife Jocelyn started the Hagerman Foundation in 2014 and located it in the restored Dryden Building just around the corner from the Capitol.
“This is kind of a ‘pinch me’ moment,” Mott Foundation President Ridgway White said, “to see this many people in this great Capitol Theater.” Noting he had been involved for 16 of the 17 years of the renovation project’s history, he said, “Our city struggled recently, and this project is part of that recovery and rising — part of investing in our city’s future, part of investing in people — the great people that make this city. That’s what this institution is about.”
The Whiting, at the heart of the city’s Cultural Center, will manage operations and programming. Whiting Executive Director Jarret Haynes, who emceed Thursday’s celebration, said, now that the restoration is complete, the joys of live performance will again be available downtown. “We’re returning this to you, the community,” he said. “This is your home.”
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.