For six decades, film fans in and around Westerly had a place to congregate—the United Theatre. The downtown landmark, which closed its doors in 1986, is now owned by the Westerly Land Trust and in the understanding hands of executive advisor Simon Holt, probably best known as the chieftain of the Salt Marsh Opera.
Like all land trusts, Westerly’s is charged with land conservancy—“and then it has this urban initiative, a group in partnership with the Royce Family Fund, in acquiring downtown urban properties and finding new uses for them,” Holt explains.
Holt’s role is to work with nonprofit lawyers and apply for the theater’s 501(c)(3) educational status. For the past six months, he’s been working with various groups in town, and, to get the ball rolling, a fundraising advisory group formed last June with fundraising experts who are helping Holt “look for funding not only from individuals but from state and federal grants,” he says.
In particular, the advisory group is partnering with the town of Westerly in writing two grants—a National Endowment for the Arts grant which gives money to pay for architects’ work and an Economic Development Administration grant for $1 million to actually start building.
“Both of those grants are being matched by the Royce Family Fund,” Holt adds.
By the end of the year, he anticipates knowing whether construction can begin. Holt is “fairly certain this will go ahead and we will start some building work on the very front of the building. We’ll be refurbishing the façade and the marquee, and then we’ll be trying to rebuild the movie theater so that we can try to get some things happening in the building, and provide the opportunity for everybody to be part of that.”
It’s difficult to say when the building will be in its finished form “because the funding is so hard right now,” he said. Holt added that, “We’re thinking of a phased approach – it could be three phases, it could be five phases. Who knows? If we could raise $6 million, it could be one phase.”
The entire project could take between three and five years to complete. Despite its usefulness and vision as a city centerpiece, “the project is “ill-timed,” he says, “in that everyone is hurting. “
The big question is, he asks, “Does Westerly really need the United Theatre?” Holt encourages people to think of it as “an economic driver for the whole town.” He says, “If we look at the kind of things that are going in—bars and clubs and stores—there’s this feeling of rejuvenation now and I feel the theater will be a real major part of attracting people into the area.”
Holt, who has “always been very motivated by trying to create a community around the arts,” is enthusiastic.
“For me, this was the opportunity to try to help the town become focused around the arts—not just one art form but all the arts. I’m keen to see this happen.”