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Should Chapel Hill buy the Varsity Theatre? A town task force says probably not.

It could cost at least $5 million to turn the historic Varsity Theatre into a modern, community-owned performing arts center, but that still might not bring more people and money to Franklin Street, a town task force says.

The theater is not for sale, but the Town Council asked the task force in October to investigate the possibilities. The council received a report on that work Wednesday and told Town Manager Maurice Jones to come back in the future with a list of potential next steps.

“It is clear that the Varsity Theatre is not the appropriate location for a performing arts center as identified by this task force,” the group’s report said. “However, there are other possible spaces for such a venue in downtown Chapel Hill and the task force recommends that the council and town staff continue to engage and explore this issue.”

Council members Michael Parker and Rachel Schaevitz led the task force, which also included Paul Shareshian, who co-owns the theater with his wife Susan. They lease the space from Jim Rumfelt, who owns the Sorrell Building at 123 E. Franklin St. Blue Horn Lounge and Light Years also are tenants in the building.

Rumfelt’s business partner, Steve Mills, has said the Sorrell Building is not for sale.

Community need, desire

The task force found a strong desire in the community for “a vibrant, lively place where folks go to meet and engage with the arts, that reflects the community’s values, and that is accessible and appealing to a broad cross-section” of residents and visitors.

Such a space could offer dance, music, theater, comedy, film and spoken-word performances, as well as community and educational events, it said. Orange County is lacking in that type of space, according to a January report from the Orange County Arts Commission.

The report found the arts generate roughly 2 million visitors, 5,000 full-time jobs and $130 million in economic activity each year in the county. UNC events bring in more than 75% of the money, but fewer than half of the visitors, it said.

In Chapel Hill, the economic share is roughly $117 million, about $28 million of which is spent by audiences. The rest is spent by arts organizations.

But space for artists and performers to live, learn and work is limited, it said, noting the ArtsCenter in Carrboro is the only significant, non-UNC space available for the arts. ArtsCenter programs, performances and classes attract roughly 100,000 people a year, it said.

“As a result, artists with the necessary resources have created home studios; artists who do not own their home or lack space for a studio travel to Chatham, Durham, and Alamance Counties to rent space,” the report said.

Chapel Hill council members visited a similar community arts venue to what is being considered last year in Lawrence, Kansas.

Worth the expense?

The two-screen Varsity Theatre is known for its low ticket prices, second-run movies, and rental space for parties, fundraisers and community events. The Shareshians have improved the space over the years, including through a $50,000 Kickstarter campaign in 2015 that replaced older projectors with newer, digital equipment.

The cost of transforming the space could be significant, the report said, citing issues with the shape and size of the space, low ceilings, and outdated mechanical systems. It could cost at least $2 million to buy the building, it said, and renovating it could add another $1.5 million to $3.5 million. A facelift for the building, its marquee and the lobby could be done for about $150,000.

In addition to taxpayer dollars, the town could establish or partner with a nonprofit group to raise money for the project or apply for private and public grants, the report said. However, it’s not clear whether that would be worth it to the town or downtown businesses.

The Varsity now holds roughly 100 events each month — mostly films — bringing 7,000 to 8,000 people downtown, Shareshian told the task force. At full capacity, and even with renovations, the theater would have only 280 to 300 seats.

“If occupied at a level comparable to other venues in the area it is not clear that there would be a significant increase in the number of individuals drawn to the Downtown,” the group reported. “Thus, renovating the Theatre would have unknown material effect on downtown businesses.”

The group also urged the town to address a number of longtime downtown issues, from aggressive panhandling to public urination, harassment and smoking. Those issues, as well as the cost and perceived lack of parking, makes visitors feel unsafe, unwelcome and uncomfortable, it said.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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