Liberty Theatre leader offers estimate on money needed to renovate, fix serious issues
Located in the heart of Columbus’ Liberty District, the Liberty Theatre and Cultural Center is in crisis.
Holes in the roof allow water to stream in during heavy rains, rotting the wooden catwalk and damaging the stage of one of only three historically African-American theaters in Georgia. The others are The Morton Theater in Athens and the Douglass Theatre in Macon.
The Liberty Theatre and adjoining building need an entirely new roof, according to Executive Director Shae Anderson. The 295-seat theater also needs a new electric system, has no lighting or sound system and no air conditioning.
There hasn’t been a production at the theater since December 2016. Even then the theater’s production of “Go Tell it on the Mountain” was moved at the last minute to Carver High School after heavy rain damaged the stage area.
During a State of the Liberty address Wednesday morning, Anderson said time is running out for the nonprofit performing arts organization.
Estimates for renovation costs at the theater range between $2 million to $3 million and even more is needed for expansion and operating costs.
“There is no operating budget, there’s no money to pay full time staff,” Anderson said.
The theater opened in 1924, hosting concerts, movies, dances, vaudeville acts and many top entertainers before closing its doors in 1974. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985. In 1993 local organizations rallied to restore the building with a $1 million grant. The theater re-opened in 1996.
In the 23 years since, the theater and adjoining building have again fallen into disrepair and rentals of the modern annex attached to the theater have been the only thing keeping it afloat.
Anderson said she gave the presentation to let the public know the kind of work involved in day-to-day operations, in hopes of kicking off a fundraising campaign.
“Rentals are pretty much the primary revenue stream for the Liberty,” Anderson said.
Renting the facilities costs $800, with a $150 security deposit. Someone may book an event today for next June, but the money will come in over the next 12 months, so long as it is paid within 60 days of the event. This makes the receipt of funds unpredictable.
“That’s how we like it, that’s how we want it to be because it matches the needs of the community we serve, but it also should not be the money we have to depend on to determine if a bill is going to get paid or if salaries and things like that are going to be paid,” Anderson said.
Rentals have kept the theater afloat for years, Anderson said, but can’t continue to pay day-to-day expenses and could never fund the type of work that’s needed on the building.
Anderson is focusing her efforts with the #ThisPlaceMatters campaign, which is sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Places. According to the National Trust’s website, the campaign “encourages people to celebrate the places that are meaningful to them and to their communities.”
Anderson said $1 million would fund necessary building repairs, but the total amount of money it would take to bring the theater up to modern standards would be much more.
“There are a few solutions for the problem, obviously guaranteed funds for operation would be a starting point for us,” she said.
Anderson said that receiving a penny or half a penny of the hotel/motel tax within the city would be a huge gain for the organization, potentially bringing in up to $600,000 a year.
“In terms of what the Liberty needs right now, when you talk about 25 years of repairs and renovation, it’s probably bigger than just one single fundraising event,” Anderson said. “A modest estimate would be $2 million to $3 million for a full-scale renovation. If you’re talking about expansion and other things, probably $5 to $7 million to really kick the Liberty off and give the Liberty what it deserves.”
The Liberty District is a gap in the downtown area, Anderson said, and seeing it become a multicultural, diverse hub in the community is her goal, which starts with bringing the Liberty Theatre into the modern age.
“To be able to go from Phenix City on a Friday night to drinks at Uptown to an event in the Liberty District to going home or winding down in Midtown would be an amazing thing,” Anderson said.
Ross Horner, Uptown Columbus President, said the Liberty Theatre is an incredible opportunity for the community to diversify its entertainment options, which is what led the group to holding one of its concerts at the Liberty last year.
“What we saw over in the Liberty District was an extremely diverse crowd, and that excited us,” Horner said. “They’re in a great spot. That area is walkable, bikeable to Uptown. That’s a win for both of us.”
Tonza Thomas, former president of the Columbus branch of the NAACP, said after the presentation that she wants to see the Liberty become a state-of-the-art facility, which honors the history of the famous names who graced the Liberty District such as Ma Rainey, Peggy Jenkins and JoJo Benson, to name a few.
“We have to get in front of our history,” she said. “Sometimes our history has been lost or diluted. The one thing that has stayed constant in Columbus is the Liberty Theatre.”