To the Editor:
Last week it was announced in the Washington Business Journal that "The life of the Old Town Theater as an entertainment venue may be coming to an end after a rocky few years." Will the property be turned into a retail location as suggested as a possibility in the article? "Major national retail tenants have long been attracted to the property for its prime location." This would be unfortunate, not only because of the outstanding work Rob Kaufamn did to restore the theater, even finding many hidden and forgotten elements, but because an arts venue is an outstanding asset that not only contributes economically to Alexandria but also to our history and sense of place.
The city website states it this way: "Arts and culture not only enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors in a community — the creative economy is a vital element in building and sustaining unique and diverse communities. By working together cultural organizations, working artists, and creative businesses contribute to the local economy by providing jobs, supporting other local businesses, and local revenue."
I was very excited about the potential of a performance venue on King Street in the heart of Alexandria, not only because it restored a beautiful building to its original purpose, but because it had and still has the potential as an attraction that will bring visitors for a unique purpose, who can then also shop, dine, and visit our historic sights. Old Town was once home to several theaters, but now there is only one historic theater. It is part of our historic legacy and a unique venue that can not be duplicated.
There are several models for how community theaters are supported. Signature Theater in Shirlington was brought in as a cultural anchor for the new development. It serves as a focal point for the retail district, attracts 80,000 visitors a year, and gives back to the community through education programs, free lectures, and performance training. It has over 5,000 subscribers, 60 percent who live in Northern Virginia. So it is a big regional draw that contributes to the overall success of the Shirlington neighborhood.
Similarly, the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street in Washington D.C. has helped transform that neighborhood. Spearheaded by an individual philanthropic effort, it partnered with the D.C. government and the local community to become the centerpiece of the revival of H Street. I recently attended the DC Fringe Festival there, which could not have happened if it were not in a non-profit environment. The Atlas now serves to increase "public understanding of the value of the arts in our community, enhances the civic wellbeing of all its citizens, and strengthens Washington, D.C.’s role as an international leader in the arts." Alexandria would also like to be recognized as a leader in the arts, and therefore should continue to strengthen the identity of Old Town and King Street as a uniques destination by having a venue for the arts.
I urge those involved in the arts, and in the leadership of the city, to start a conversation about the Old Town Theater, and what its role could be. Whether it is to find a philanthropic owner, or someone to purchase it as a performance space, I believe it is critical to Alexandria's economic and cultural future that we all work toward a solution that preserves the theater as an arts venue. Rob Kaufman got the ball rolling by restoring the theater, and now we need the right person to assume the reins and find the right model that works to preserve this arts venue in Alexandria. Arts are good for the local economy and help make Alexandria a unique place to live and visit.