Bank trying to sell Wheaton Grand Theater

  • Grand Theater Corp., the not-for-profit group that oversees management of the Wheaton Grand Theater, has lost ownership of the historic building in downtown Wheaton.

    Grand Theater Corp., the not-for-profit group that oversees management of the Wheaton Grand Theater, has lost ownership of the historic building in downtown Wheaton. Daily Herald file photo

Published: 7/14/2010 12:01 AM

A not-for-profit group that has worked for years to revamp and reopen the Wheaton Grand Theater has lost ownership of the historic downtown movie house.

Grand Theater Corp. last week surrendered the deed to Suburban Bank and Trust Co. after falling behind on a loan of about $800,000. The Elmhurst-based bank chain now is trying to sell the building along Hale Street, company officials said.

"The sad thing about it is that the bank is likely to take the hit," said Ray Shepardson, the theater's project manager. "I feel really bad about that. They don't deserve to take a hit for supporting a community project."

The theater's fate has been in limbo since November when Wheaton park board members scrapped a plan to borrow millions to renovate it.

Unable to open the theater to live performances, Shepardson said the Grand Theater Corp. simply didn't have the means to generate the revenue needed to make the loan payments. A church that was renting space at the theater moved out last month.

Still, Shepardson said he remains optimistic the 85-year-old building can be saved.

"We're hopeful to figure out a way to reacquire the theater and move forward," he said. "For me, I look at it as a bump in the road - not the end of the road."

A small group of city officials, business owners and theater representatives have been meeting since December to develop a proposal that restores the Wheaton Grand without burdening taxpayers.

One option the steering committee has been exploring is a $10 million proposal that would reopen the Wheaton Grand as an 860-seat venue.

To help the committee's efforts, the Wheaton City Council hired Chicago-based Market and Feasibility Advisors to examine whether reopening the Wheaton Grand as a live theater could be a financial success.

The results of the $28,500 study haven't been released. Previous studies by two other consultants came to opposite conclusions.

Two years ago, C.H. Johnson Consulting issued a report claiming the theater could compete "as one of the premier theater venues in the region."

Then last fall, Jim Hirsch, a consultant hired by the 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.

"The purpose of this (latest study) is to come to a conclusion one way or the other," said Councilman Phil Suess, who also serves on the steering committee.

Suess said the Market and Feasibility Advisors study is just as important now that the theater is for sale.

"I think anybody who's interested in the theater is probably going to be interested in talking to the city," Suess said. "There's a benefit to the city of having this study because it provides a frame of reference through which to evaluate any proposals."

One potential buyer of the Wheaton Grand is Classic Cinemas. In April, officials with the theater chain that restored the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove said they were investigating the possibility of purchasing the theater to show first-run films.

"Anything that would put feet on the street in downtown would be a good thing," Mayor Michael Gresk said.