Burlington’s municipal leaders ran through a whole repertoire of possible upgrades this week as they brainstormed some ideas for the proposed expansion of the historic Paramount Theater.
The city’s higher-ups have been ruminating about this project since 2017 when Burlington’s city council agreed to purchase the former home of Moorefield Florist at 138 East Front Street, which had long buttressed the site of the city-owned theater.
The council had initially hoped to integrate the 2,370-square-foot flower shop into the theater when it authorized the property’s purchase. Its members nevertheless agreed to raze the building in January after city staff members uncovered extensive roof damage and other problems that made its prospective renovation less tenable.
Since the council signed off on the building’s demolition, the Greensboro-based contractor D.H. Griffin has begun to disassemble the structure. According to Fred Patrick, Burlington’s capital projects manger, Griffin’s wrecking crews should bring the entire edifice down within the next one to three weeks.
In the meantime, the flower shop’s impending demolition has provided the council with a wider palette of options for the Paramount’s proposed expansion.
Mon Peng Yueh, a consultant with Clearscapes Architects, laid out the extended scope of this project when it came up for discussion at the council’s latest monthly work session on Monday. During her presentation, Yueh told the council that the city could replace the Moorefield Florist building with a new, two story edifice that has up to 4,700 square of floor space. Alternatively, the city could increase the available space to 5,300 square feet if it connects both floors of the new building to the existing theater.
This extra room for expansion proved fertile ground for the imaginations of Burlington’s staff members. Tony Laws, the city’s recreation director, suggested that the proposed building’s second floor could serve as a rehearsal space for performers, while David Wright, the theater’s manager, saw the potential for the creation of a “civic center” with the playhouse’s expansion.
Meanwhile, Peter Bishop, the city’s economic development director, proposed the creation of retail space on the building’s ground floor that the city could then lease out to private commercial interest.
“As you know this is a corner site, and that’s a very desirable location for retailers,” Bishop said during the work session.. “Before the city had made this [expansion] a priority, there were several inquiries from businesses downtown – ‘Is that building available? Is the city willing to sell that?”
Bishop’s proposal was nevertheless panned by Wright, who reminded the council that one of the original goals of the theater’s expansion was to provide performers with a direct indoor route from the front to the back of the playhouse. The theater’s manager insisted that this objective would be all but defeated by a retailer on the building’s ground floor.
“A retail operation would be disrupted by something like that,” he went on to assure the council.
In response to Wright’s protests, councilman Bob Ward said that he, for one, would prefer to stick to the project’s original intent as an expansion of the Paramount Theater,. This preference was echoed by councilmember Kathy Hykes, who pointed to a growing enthusiasm for live theater among the community’s residents.
“I think the demand for the Paramount has increased,” she said, “so I think we should go with what we originally said [we would do].”
Ward added that the city could still meet the business community’s demand for more retail space by repurposing another city-owned corner across from May Memorial Library.
The prospect of a more expansive playhouse also won the applause of Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler as well as the city’s mayor pro tem Harold Owen. Butler insisted that some increased attention to the project’s “programming piece” could “flood the downtown” area with patrons. Owen voiced a similar sentiment in his own remarks at the work session.
“This is the one thing we can really do to bring more people downtown,” he told the rest of the council.
Yet, the council’s increasingly ambitious vision also prompted Hykes to share one caveat with her colleagues.
“We’ve just raised the price on this,” she told the group just before Monday’s discussion wrapped up.