The effort to create a community theater in Brook Run Park is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis.
Supporters of refurbishing the shuttered building that was once a theater for the Georgia Retardation Center into a contemporary community theater say they envision more than a place to see plays and performances.
“I think we misbranded this,” said Danny Ross, president of the Brook Run Conservancy. “This is far more than a theater.
“It’s much more of a community center. There are attributes here you don’t find elsewhere,” he said. “We have 48,000 people in this city [and many] come to this park. They find this is a gathering place.”
Ross and the Brook Run Conservancy are slated to appear before the Dunwoody City Council on July 11 to make a presentation on how they plan to raise up to $11 million to refurbish the building that has been boarded up since the 1990s. Others estimate refurbishing the building could cost closer to $20 million.
Tense exchanges between council members and conservancy representatives about what to do with the building have been going for a year. Some council members and community members want to tear the building down because they don’t see it as worth saving.
“If they want to tear it down, they can. But they do so at their own peril,” Ross said, adding that he believes the building is a valuable asset to the city.
Rebranding efforts underway
The conservancy recently brought on a volunteer public relations spokesperson, Randy Lewis, set up a “Save the Brook Run Theater” Facebook page that has nearly 150 members and started a “Save the Historic Brook Run Theater” Change.org petition that has 140 signatures.
These efforts are part of a renewed push and education campaign to inform people that the effort is just not to save a theater.
Of the 34,000 square-foot building, only about 60 percent is the theater, said Lewis, meaning there is plenty of room for other uses in the building. “There are two other wings where many other uses can take place,” he said.
Renovation of theater and community center would take place in four stages, Ross said during a recent walk-through and tour of the building. It is dark and musky inside with graffiti on most of the walls, some of it obscene. But there is also a recent “Feel the Bern” tag from the recent presidential primary campaign.
Ross said the city in recent weeks has been cleaning out much of the debris that has piled up in the building so the Conservancy can walk potential investors through it. There is still a great deal of shattered glass, trash, and decrepit furniture throughout.
As he opened doors to former classrooms, Ross said it is important to look past the dirt and decay to see what the building can be – a centerpiece for the Dunwoody where nonprofit organizations could hold meetings, corporations could hold teambuilding exercises and, of course, people could watch the latest Stage Door Players production.
The chapel, where stain glass windows have survived without too much damage, holds approximately 125 people could be used for weddings, receptions and community meetings, he said. A catering kitchen could also be built into the chapel and people wanting to eat before a theater production could sit and eat at tables set up in the chapel.
A financial feasibility study to determine if the conservancy can raise the millions needed to renovate the theater building is underway, Ross said, and will include interviews with individuals, foundations and corporations.
The study is expected to take about six months. Ross admits it won’t be an easy proposition to raise so much money. Raising millions of dollars could take years.
“We’ve never raised money in this community,” Ross said. “And when we have council members saying they want to tear it down — can you imagine putting your money into such a project? It’s like pushing string uphill. We’ve got to get our council on board, but also back away and give us time to do it.”
City funds to be used for renovations?
Ross said the city will have to invest in Brook Run Theater to ensure the renovation happens. However, Mayor Denny Shortal has promised the city would “not go into debt” to fund the renovations and other council members have promised taxpayer money will not go into the project.
Conservancy spokesperson Lewis said the city has to “put skin in the game” to ensure other organizations and foundations will be willing to contribute. The $4 million settlement the city reached with DeKalb County last year could be a source of funding, he said.
However, some council members have long said that money should not be used to renovate the Brook Run Park building.
“It’s not their money,” Lewis said. “It’s our money. It belongs to the people of Dunwoody – as does the building and as does the park.”
However, a divide in the community continues and many members have said publicly that the DeKalb settlement funds should be used for other projects, such as building athletic fields in Brook Run Park.
But Ross believes if people understand this project is about much more than a theater, they would come around to support it.
“This is much more than a theater. This is for everyone in Dunwoody,” he said.
More scenes from inside the building (Photos Dyana Bagby):