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Egyptian Theatre supporters plan for projects, funding

Patrick Mlady updates the marquee outside the Egyptian Theatre on Thursday in DeKalb.
Patrick Mlady updates the marquee outside the Egyptian Theatre on Thursday in DeKalb.

DeKALB – The Egyptian Theatre has been a work in progress for 35 years.

The theater has replaced its sound system and its 1,400 seats. This year, a fire-sprinkler system will be installed throughout the building.

But Alex Nerad, the theater's executive director, said he already was thinking of other needed expansions. An expanded box office. A bigger concession stand. More stalls in the bathroom. An air-conditioning unit.

"I think anyone who has been to a show here when it's busy knows that our three-stall women's restroom is not big enough," Nerad said. "I don't know what they were thinking in 1929. ...The math doesn't really add up."

The city of DeKalb has been a major backer of the theater. Since 1989, the city has funneled $2.2 million to the theater's capital projects, said Jennifer Diedrich, DeKalb's economic development coordinator.

Diedrich added that city staff has earmarked $100,000 in tax increment financing annually to the theatre until 2020. Assuming the City Council approves these allocations without any changes, the theater will have collected $3 million from the city by this point.

"Not only is the theater an economic driver to the downtown area, but it's a significant cultural and artistic draw," Diedrich said.

The city's TIF district is set to expire in 2020. These districts, which allow municipalities to renovate blighted properties using a special tax mechanism, have a 23-year lifespan that can be expanded once for 12 years.

Nerad estimated that the theater has undergone at least $4 million of renovations. But he said that is a small amount compared with other renovated theaters in the region.

During the 1970s, the Paramount Theatre in Aurora received $15 million from state and city governments for renovations. In 2001, the Coronado Performing Arts Center in Rockford re-opened after an $18.5 million restoration.

"It's quite impressive, long before my time as well as in recent years, how this organization ... has stretched dollars and really make the most of things here," Nerad said. "These old buildings need constant care and upkeep."

The Egyptian Theatre opened in 1929 as a vaudeville house, but it became a movie theater shortly after, Nerad said. During the 1970s, both the business and the building were falling into a state of disrepair. After the owners abandoned the building, it was turned over to the city.

"They were essentially going to condemn the building," Nerad said. "The ceiling was falling in, the basement was flooded, animals were running around in here – it was in really bad shape."

It was in 1978 when the Preservation of the Egyptian Theatre, a nonprofit organization made up of concerned citizens, acquired the building. In the early 1980s, the group used a $2.1 million grant from the state to renovate and reopen it.

For the past 35 years, the Preservation of the Egyptian Theatre has operated the theater with a joint mission: Preserving the 84-year-old building while also giving DeKalb a cultural keystone.

The theater's finances play a role in what it can provide to the community. Nerad said the theater abandoned the concept of being a commercial movie theater because it wasn't profitable. Nerad commented that even the American Film Institute film series they did this spring was successful attendance-wise, but not financially.

"It is pretty rare to find any theater like this out there that is operating 100 percent self-sufficient without any sort of donations or contributions," Nerad said. "While we hope to become more self-sufficient, that will include support from the community."

With the end of the TIF subsidy not far away, Nerad said they are trying to expand their donor base through a capital fundraising campaign and creating some kind of endowment.

"We want to make sure we are forecasting and looking ahead on that," Nerad said. "We're extremely grateful for the support we've received from the city."

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