After two consulting firms reached opposite conclusions about whether a restored Wheaton Grand Theater could be an economic success, city officials want another independent study to break the tie.
The Wheaton City Council on Monday decided to spend $28,500 to hire Chicago-based Market and Feasibility Advisors to examine the viability of renovating and reopening the 1920s movie palace in downtown Wheaton.
"The interest in pursuing this type of project is broader economic development in the downtown area," Councilman Phil Suess said. "As we look at alternatives, I think this is the most viable strategy for bringing people to the downtown. And the benefits that would result from that would be significant."
The theater's fate has been in limbo since November when Wheaton park board members scrapped a plan to borrow millions to renovate the Hale Street building.
Grand Theater Corp., the not-for-profit group that oversees management of the Wheaton Grand, is on the verge of losing ownership of the building after falling behind on a loan of about $800,000. Foreclosure proceedings have started, and Grand Theater Corp. is expected to surrender the deed to the bank.
The situation has Councilman John Prendiville questioning who would benefit from the results of the new study.
"The Grand Theater Corp. is not going to own the theater," he said. "So who is going to use this report to move forward?"
However, a majority of the council rejected Prendiville's suggestion that the city negotiate a land swap with the bank to acquire the theater. Such a deal wouldn't cost Wheaton any money because the city owns several parcels along Main Street, according to Prendiville.
"Even if the theater project didn't go forward, we could possibly control a very important piece of land in our downtown," he said.
But Councilman Howard Levine said he can't support any plan that gives the city all the risk of developing the theater.
"I would love to see a theater downtown," he said. "I am just not in favor of a theater at any cost."
While the city has no intention of taking ownership of the theater, it could work to encourage someone in the private sector to buy the building. First, there are significant questions that must be answered.
Two years ago, C.H. Johnson Consulting issued a report claiming the theater along Hale Street could compete "as one of the premier theater venues in the region."
But then last fall, Jim Hirsch, a consultant hired by the Wheaton Park District, concluded that a plan to restore the Wheaton Grand is considered "risky" by experienced venue operators. He raised questions about the theater's ability to attract marketable artists, collect private donations and sell enough tickets.
Councilman Liz Corry said the new study by Market and Feasibility Advisors will help officials decide once and for all if the theater is worth saving.
"I think we need to take a really good, hard look at this," Corry said. "The consultant that has been chosen has probably the best shot of giving is an answer that can put this issue to bed."