A failed advisory referendum on the future of the Wheaton Grand Theater might not have been its final act, after all.
An official with the bank that owns the deed to the theater says the failure of the referendum to provide city funding could turn into a good thing for the downtown landmark.
Senior Vice President Mark Daniels of Suburban Bank and Trust Co. said the referendum's defeat opened the door for private developers who no longer have to fear competition from a government entity or not-for-profit corporation. It also narrowed the field of potential competitors.
"Just in the last few weeks, there has been a fair amount of interest from private entities," Daniels said. "We are anxious to find the next owner of the building."
On April 5, 56 percent of Wheaton voters rejected a proposal to set aside up to $150,000 a year for the city to contribute to renovating the theater.
In the lead-up to the election, some said the referendum's defeat could mean the end of the building and floated a doomsday wrecking ball scenario. Daniels said that remains a possibility.
"It's our desire to turn over the keys to the building as soon as possible," he said. "But if we don't get a firm offer, there is certainly value in the land. It comes down to, if we don't see enough activity, we'll have to contemplate selling it as a land."
Last summer, the Wheaton Grand Theater Corp. had to give up the deed to the bank after falling behind about $800,000 on its loan. The episode ended the group's years-long efforts to restore the venerable building -- which opened in 1925 as a live-action theater -- to its past prominence.
City Councilman Todd Scalzo introduced the advisory referendum in January, hoping to gauge the public's interest in having city money go to the theater.
"We need to recapture as much of our loan dollars as humanly possible," Suburban Bank's Daniels said. "We can't just take the first offer that comes through. It's our need to take that asset that's not making any money and have it stop losing us money."
Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk confirmed there has been a slight uptick in interest in the theater in the two weeks since the referendum's failure and multiple groups of potential buyers visited the building. He would not say what type of venues the groups proposed.
"The important factor is it generates property tax by being renovated and it generates collateral foot traffic in our downtown," he said.
"These are private entrepreneurs. They are not looking for some sort of city taxpayer handout, which is great," he said.
Gresk said they may, however, need help from the city council if they want zoning variances. Gresk said he thinks officials most likely will be "more than willing" to help in that fashion.
As encouraged as he is by increased interest in the property, Gresk said he remains cautious and was not exactly ready to raise the curtain on the theater's next venture just yet.
"I'm optimistic but I'm not naive," Gresk said. "I know it's a very long journey from a prospective buyer walking through the building to actually getting the money in hand."