Theater renovations draw downtown visitors
Before her August performance at Marion’s historic Lincoln Theatre, country singer Lorrie Morgan took an afternoon stroll downtown, stopping at shops and the local farmers market, according to Tracy Thompson, the theater’s director.
Drawing visitors — famous and otherwise — to downtown Marion was the goal back in 2004 when the community raised more than $1.8 million to renovate the Lincoln, which was initially built in 1929 as a movie theater.
Pennington Gap had a similar goal in mind in 2013 when it reopened its Lee Theatre, which dates to 1947 and, like the Lincoln, closed during the 1970s. Now, organizers hope to drive economic development in Wytheville with the soon-to-reopen Millwald Theatre.
Jeff Potts, who came on board as executive director of Millwald Theatre Inc. earlier this year, hopes to finish the venue’s $4.8 million renovation and expansion in time to stage its opening events around Thanksgiving or in early December. “Definitely sometime this year,” he says.
On a busy night, he expects the Millwald to draw 500 visitors downtown.
“They’re going to come early and stay late in downtown Wytheville,” Potts says. “And that, ultimately, is the point of why we’re doing this. It’s not just to save the building, and not just to create a cultural gathering spot. It’s to make money and to spread that throughout our community.”
That’s what’s happened with the Lee Theatre, according to Keith Harless, town manager of Pennington Gap, which has 1,922 residents. The venue hosts events about four times a month.
“When you have an average of 300 people that come to our little downtown, that’s a huge impact for a town of our size,” he says.
While the Lee Theatre screens movies, Marion’s Lincoln Theatre has, until now, stuck to live events. Thornton hopes that will soon change. In June, Gov. Glenn Youngkin recommended that the Lincoln Theatre receive a $69,025 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal economic development agency, to purchase equipment to allow the theater to digitally project movies.
The Millwald will also screen films, but Thompson isn’t worried about competition. “The more venues, the more performance opportunities there are in the region, the better everyone is going to do,” she says. “Southwest Virginia, hopefully, will become a really strong arts destination.”