Politics & Government

Historic Wichita theater could reopen by 2020

The Dunbar Theater at 1007 N. Cleveland on Tuesday. (Aug. 22, 2017)
The Dunbar Theater at 1007 N. Cleveland on Tuesday. (Aug. 22, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

The historic Dunbar Theatre moved closer to making a comeback Tuesday, with plans revealed for a $5.2 million effort to restore and reopen the theater and kick-start economic activity in Wichita’s traditionally African-American community.

If all goes as planned, the shuttered theater at 1007 N. Cleveland will reopen in 2020 as an urban movie and play house, celebrating and revitalizing the African-American entertainment heritage of northeast Wichita.

New York entertainment consultant Candace Jackson said the national models for Dunbar revitalization are the Lyric Theater in Lexington, Ky., the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Gem Theater in Kansas City.

“We know that this is possible. We’ve seen it. It is happening around the country and (the Dunbar Theatre) is well positioned to follow suit,” said Jackson, a former director of operations for the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.

Jackson presented the plans to the Wichita City Council in a workshop meeting Tuesday.

A revitalized Dunbar Theater would serve as the “cultural anchor and economic anchor for the McAdams neighborhood,” she said.

Phase one of the project would be to rebuild the theater itself in a style recalling the 1940s and early 1950s, when the theater was in its heyday as the go-to entertainment place for the city’s African-American residents.

It’s been closed since 1963, and the city sought to condemn and tear it down in 1980 and 1991.

Both times it was saved. It has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 2008.

Between 2012 and 2014, the art-deco sign and marquee were restored and exterior walls were painted with murals to discourage graffiti.

Some new construction would be required to bring the theater up to the standards of a modern live-performance venue, including additional space for the box office, concessions, rest rooms and “back of house” functions such as staging and costuming, Jackson said.

Future phases would include a “black box” space without fixed seating or staging that could be used for receptions and special events. The plan also envisions long-term restaurant and small-scale retail redevelopment around the Dunbar, including the also historic former Turner Drug Store building.

City Council member Lavonta Williams, who represents the area, said a revitalized Dunbar Theatre would help restore some vitality to an area of the city that once bustled with commerce and activity.

“When we were kids, we were dropped off at that theater almost every Saturday,” she said.

She added that the project has come a long way but still has a long way to go. “We’ve been working on it since I got here,” said Williams, who has served on the council for 10 years.

The project will be paid for with a combination of fund raising and government grants, the plan envisions.

It will be overseen by a committee operating through Power Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization led by James Arbertha that has developed affordable housing and the Save-A-Lot grocery store in northeast Wichita.

State Sen. Oletha Faust Goudeau, who serves on the Power CDC board, attended Tuesday’s council meeting with members of the African-American Council of Elders supporting the project.

She praised Arbertha’s efforts and said the project counts among its supporters Gov. Sam Brownback, who donated $5,000 from his leftover campaign funds.

“I know he thinks it’s a worthy project,” she said. “When you revitalize a neighborhood and a city, it helps the entire state.”

Analysts from Jackson’s company, CJAM Consulting, said they think the project will succeed because of a pent-up demand for small-stage entertainment that will attract customers from well beyond Wichita’s African-American community.

“The beauty of it is it is so realistic and viable,” said Leith Ter Meulen, who presented the detailed financial plan to the City Council.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas