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March 07, 2012 | 07:56 AM
In order to save the Geneva Theater, the group created to preserve it is looking for financial help.

The group made that plea to the Lake Geneva City Council Monday night.

Ken Etten, a local architect and president of the nonprofit Friends of the Geneva Theater, asked the City Council Monday to consider using Tax Incremental Financing funds to pay for the purchase of the now vacant building.

The group's long-range plan is to restore the 1928, or south, portion of the theater to its original look, including opening the balcony and stage. There could be plays, concerts and film festivals held in that part of the building. Then, the 1975 addition, or north side of the building, would become a multi-use facility for the arts.

The theater, which is located in the 200-block of Broad Street, has been vacant for more than a year and is listed for $895,000.

"The building as it sits is a liability for the merchants, downtown and city overall," Etten said. "It doesn't enhance the marketability and we have this idea of creating a cultural center downtown."

In a letter he penned to the council, Etten stated the theater is in the TIF district and that a purchase would fall within the approved uses of TIF funds.

"We, therefore strongly urge the city of Lake Geneva to utilize TIF funds to purchase the Geneva Theater building," he wrote. "Following the city of Lake Geneva's purchase of the Geneva Theater, the Friends of the Geneva Theater pledge to raise from private sources the funds necessary to completely renovate the building and bring it into conformity with present building codes and standards."

Other members of the Friends group also supported the idea and requested the concept be placed on a future City Council agenda for further discussion. No action was taken Monday night during the Committee of the Whole meeting.

"We are in a bit of a bind," Mary Quinn told the aldermen. "We know how to write grants and hold fundraisers, but until it can be purchased, we can't start."

She urged the council to "realize the dream."

"We can create something that is truly magical that all generations can be proud of," Friends board member Lily Miceli said.

First District Alderwoman Ellyn Kehoe voiced her support for the idea to save the theater.

"I am so pleased with what everyone is doing for the Friends of the Theater," she said. "What a wonderful gift you will give to the future. Don't give up. I will urge us to do something to provide some funds and if need be keep pushing on in the community."

Mayor Jim Connor said earlier this week there is a lot that will have to be done if the decision is to move forward.

He said much would depend on the funding being requested. Connors said at certain levels, a referendum would be needed. Also, a TIF budget amendment would be necessary to include it in the project list.

"In my personal opinion, it would need to be self-sufficient," Connors said of the theater proposal. "There just are a lot of moving parts."

Questions still remain about how much money is being requested by the Friends. Etten did not mention specific figures and said he was not sure when asked directly after his presentation.

No other alderman commented on the theater during the meeting. However, when asked late last month about the possibility of using TIF funds for the theater, Fourth District Alderman Terry O'Neill voiced his viewpoint.

"I am generally opposed to the city spending taxpayer money to purchase, support, operate and maintain facilities whose costs are greater than its benefits to the city or its citizens," he wrote in an e-mail. "My current evaluation is that the costs for the city to purchase the theater outweigh the benefits the city would derive from its ownership.

O'Neill said he doesn't believe the council or the general citizenry would support the purchase. If city leaders think it would be supported, he suggested it go to a nonbinding referendum on a future ballot.

Etten said cities and villages such as Cedarburg, Plymouth and Viroqua all have performing arts theaters and those municipalities are similar in size to Lake Geneva. Etten said the people of Viroqua raised $1.6 million to save their theater.

Since the late 1920s, the Geneva Theater has been a fixture in downtown Lake Geneva.

But it has fallen on hard times the past few years and currently is for sale.

A little history

- The Geneva Theater opened June 6, 1928, as a theater and vaudeville house that replaced the old Ford Opera House. There was a special theater supplement in the Lake Geneva News Tribune on May 31, 1928 documenting its opening. The facility opened to a full house which included the attendance of Wisconsin Gov. Fred Zimmerman, the state's 25th governor.

- Performers at the theater have included Will Rogers, Bela Lugosi and the Marx Brothers.

- Originally, it was a one-screen theater, which was later divided into four smaller screens.

- It was closed in summer 2008 for renovations and reopened for a short time, but has since been closed and for sale.

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