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updated: 10/14/2011 6:21 AM

Wheaton residents bat around ideas for theater's future

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  • A new unofficial think tank gathered ideas Thursday about what could be done with the Wheaton Grand Theater in downtown Wheaton.

    A new unofficial think tank gathered ideas Thursday about what could be done with the Wheaton Grand Theater in downtown Wheaton.
    Daily Herald File Photo


A lunch meeting to discuss the future of the Wheaton Grand Theater certainly introduced a few new ideas to the mix. Indoor mini-golf, video arcade and a boutique hotel were among the suggestions tossed out by a newly created unofficial think tank of residents, city leaders and business people.

But whenever momentum picked up, the conversation returned to the one thing those in attendance say must be included: a cohesive plan to attract private investors.

Bold Steps, Inc. owner Rick Erickson, a longtime Wheaton resident, created the group as a way for city residents to tackle various issues in town. The downtown theater was first topic, and it appears that follow-up meetings will narrow the ideas down to a manageable list.

However, on Thursday, the goal was to hear from as many viewpoints as possible.

"This is a talented group of people," said Erickson, whose business specializes in consulting. "The next step is to summarize what we have heard and lay out the vision we have captured here."

But what that vision becomes remains to be seen. Twenty-five people attended the lunch hosted by Ivy Restaurant in an upstairs meeting room that looks out onto the shuttered theater.

With the theater as the backdrop, Laurie Swanson, a longtime Wheaton resident, told the group that she remains optimistic that investors will come along if a concrete plan comes forth.

"There is a great opportunity there," she said. "The space is there. You just need a leader who will raise the funds, put together a vision and go forward."

In April, 56 percent of Wheaton voters rejected a proposal that would have advised the city to set aside up to $150,000 a year for the city to contribute to theater renovations. Since then, Suburban Bank and Trust Co. officials have publicly indicated that interest in the property at 119 N. Hale St. has spiked.

But no concrete offers have been made public and the theater's facade continues to display old newspapers and fliers. In 2010, the bank reclaimed the deed from Grand Theater Corp. after the group fell behind $800,000 on a loan.

The referendum killed any momentum that had been gained in the lead up to the election, said Jim Mathieson, one of the theater's most vocal advocates.

"When that (referendum) failed, it popped the balloon," he said. "The real issue is that people were not behind it."

While some people talked Thursday about the theater's past, the group focused on the theater's future. Namely, how to move past old ideas and once again make it a vibrant part of the community -- without public funding.

Erickson said the bottom line is that something should move into the site, and it's about time a group takes the reins and finds investors.

"If there is this obviously great idea, why can't it get done?" Erickson said. "If we need money, let's go out and get the money."

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