Gift aids Dunbar Theater project

James Arbertha's campaign to raise millions for the historic Dunbar Theater is one step closer. Power Community Development Corp. received a $5,000 check this week, which it plans to use toward its project to turn the movie theater into a performing arts center.

Add in a new roof for the theater and painted murals outside — both of which were finished this spring — and the theater is getting closer to its goal, said Arbertha, Power CDC's executive director.

The theater, near Ninth and Cleveland, was constructed in 1941. It was a hub of a thriving black community during a time when segregation separated Wichita. At the theater, minorities could sit where they chose, as opposed to sitting in the balconies at other local movie houses.

But the facility won't be a movie theater again, Arbertha said. He envisions the theater as a neighborhood place for groups to perform. Right now, they have to use churches and hotels, he said.

Arbertha also hopes the theater will house events like weddings and family reunions.

The theater is part of a neighborhood redevelopment that Power CDC has led in central-northeast Wichita. The organization worked to bring the Save-A-Lot grocery store at 13th and Grove that opened in 2006. The group also helped build about 90 houses in the area.

Now, the people have food and homes, but they still need a theater like this to lift the area, Arbertha said.

"We've got to get the entertainment of this type in the community," he said.

Though Arbertha speaks with a sense of urgency about the project, he also knows the campaign to raise $2.5 million for the theater's restoration won't be easy.

"We're in a recession and money's tight," he said.

Thus far, Power CDC has worked on the project in pieces as money becomes available, Arbertha said.

The organization purchased the theater in May 2007. The group worked to raise community donations for the purchase through a variety of fundraisers and ended with more than $10,000, Arbertha said.

"We took it inch by inch," he said.

Former Rep. Todd Tiahrt designated about $300,000 in earmarks for the project, and the group started a nine-month fundraising drive in 2007. Some of the earmarked money went to repair a leaky, crumbling roof, and the city is still directing the theater's use of the rest of that money, Arbertha said.

The theater qualifies for historic rehabilitation tax credits, but the organization can't access any money until the building is completed, he said.

After seeing news that Gov. Sam Brownback wanted to donate money left over from his inauguration, Power CDC contacted Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, to ask how to apply. The $5,000 from the governor will go toward the $2.5 million goal to finish the theater's flooring and interior.

Arbertha hopes to have the remaining money raised in a year and is asking everyone for a minimum of $10.

"It should be hard to say no for a project like this," he said.

Arbertha said he knows the fundraising will take work. But he doesn't plan to give up until the Dunbar Theater can open again.

"We've got to get it done," he said. "We've got to."