Redevelopment of Historic Downtown Theater: Don Gibson Theatre (Shelby, NC)

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When the Don Gibson Theatre reopened in 2009 in uptown Shelby, NC, it didn’t take long for locals and visitors to start filling the newly renovated, 400 seat auditorium. Named after the hometown country music hero, Don Gibson, the fully updated theatre emphasizes the city’s deep musical heritage and now attracts nationally acclaimed acts in the form of Jazz, Country, Blues, Comedy, Rock and Roll, and Bluegrass. A centrally located downtown theater can generate increased traffic for local businesses and strengthen the social fabric of a community by creating a more desirable place to live and work.

Originally opened in 1939 as the State Theatre, the Art Deco structure serving as a movie theater was immediately popular and praised as “one of the most strikingly beautiful building fronts of the modern day.” Many Shelby residents still have fond memories of first dates and even first kisses exchanged in the auditorium throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s. By 1980, as retail stores began moving out of town and multiplex cinemas grew in popularity, small town main streets dried up and theaters suffered. The State Theatre was no exception. The building went dark and remained predominantly vacant for the next 25 years.

The redevelopment was made possible through a public-private partnership with the city and Destination Cleveland County, Inc. (DCC), a non-profit seeking to achieve economic development through projects like the Don Gibson Theatre. As the group looked for a project to become the cornerstone of their revitalization efforts, they quickly decided on the historic theater building. DCC obtained the necessary donations from individuals and local businesses in order to qualify for a $500,000 challenge grant from the city of Shelby, received a $400,000 economic development grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, and secured construction financing from five local banks in order to make the $5.1 million project feasible. Shelby Mayor Ted Alexander calls the project, “a superlative example of a public-private partnership to promote economic development through heritage tourism,” noting the theater’s important role as an economic engine for Shelby’s Main Street uptown revitalization effort.

Feeding off the success of the Don Gibson Theatre, DCC has continued its arts-driven economic development plans with the Earl Scruggs Center, scheduled to open in early 2013. The legendary bluegrass musician, also from Shelby, will be celebrated at the cultural center which will occupy the newly renovated, 105 year-old Cleveland County Courthouse. In a span of just over 5 years, Shelby has transformed two historic buildings (both of which were at one point going to be turned into parking lots) into internationally recognized landmarks of Shelby’s cultural history.

When a city commits itself to downtown revitalization projects like the Don Gibson Theatre and Earl Scruggs Center, it reassures private investors that their local investments are safe. These two civic-oriented projects are paving the way for additional commercial real estate developments and helping to reinvent Shelby’s central business district. The increased traffic from the Don Gibson Theatre has already created opportunities for new restaurants and shops, increased revenues for the city, and generated a renewed cultural vitality amongst local residents.

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Historic Movie Theatres” have become the most endangered historic buildings in America. Of the 5,000 that remain, many no longer serve a purpose to their respective downtown commercial sector. As many cities have found, however, the rehabilitation process of these rare buildings – many of which play an important role to the community’s unique cultural heritage – can serve as a catalyst for further downtown redevelopment and economic growth.

Rory Dowling, a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a joint master’s degree in Business and City and Regional Planning, is a Community Revitalization Fellow at the School of Government.

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