Community supported arts center breathes life into downtown Sault Ste. Marie

Sometimes you have to dig a little to unearth the economic benefits of a new business or organization in the small towns and cities in the Upper Peninsula. Such is the case with the Soo Theatre Project, in Sault Ste. Marie.

The Soo Theatre doesn't manufacture or build anything. What it does is provide a cultural hub for this small community that gives people another reason to move to and stay in Sault Ste. Marie.

Lisa Mansfield, director of the Soo Chamber of Commerce, says when the local college or hospital is recruiting new talent, they can tell folks the city has a place to send their children to learn the arts. This, in turn, draws in professionals who will purchase a home, shop and entertain themselves in town.

"A few years ago we didn't have these things to offer," says Mansfield.

However, this is only part of the story of the Soo Theatre Project and its economic impact on the community. Part two is how a grassroots group of people turned 125 feet of prime street frontage in the Soo's downtown area into a place where experienced artists can make money sharing their talent, kids and adults can nurture their talents, and people of all walks of life can come and enjoy a performance while dining and shopping in a reviving downtown.

"It gives these incredibly talented people a place to come and work and make some money…we've allowed a lot of artists to make a living," says Colleen Arbic, president of the Soo Theatre Project Board of Directors. In addition, two people are employed by the Soo Theatre, a business manager and administrative assistant.

Built in 1930, Soo Theatre's first hey day came while hosting live stage productions. Underneath the stage were elaborate dressing rooms and a theatre production room. The original Soo Theatre had one stage and seated 1,100 people. The original design also included nine apartments and four storefronts. A soundproof projection room was used for both movie equipment and stage lighting.

As with many small-town theaters in following decades, in 1974 they did away with live performances, and the large theatre was split into two smaller theatres for cinema use only. A concrete wall split the two theatres.

With the rise of the multiplex theatre, the old Soo Theatre began to lose its appeal to moviegoers, plus it was hard to compete with the big guys. In 1998, the lights of the Soo Theatre were turned off for what looked like for good.

Apparently, a candle burned somewhere, albeit dimly; a few years later there were whispers about the town of getting the lights back on in the old entertainment venue. In 2003, Diana George, the founder of the Soo Theatre project and current music director, led efforts to acquire the building and formed the first board of directors. The board's first order of business was a daunting one--restoring the historic structure, which was in an awful state of disrepair with outdated wiring, plumbing, and heating.

A steering committee was formed and went to work soliciting donations, hosting fund raisers, and attending to the more dubious and physically demanding job of working on the inside of the structure, hauling junk and removing damaged walls.

By 2004, 501c3 nonprofit status was obtained, which gave the group the green light on further fundraising efforts. Those eventually included a Cool Cities Grant of $100,000, in addition to thousands more from grants, local businesses, and individuals. In addition, they've received over $50,000 of in-kind services from local contractors and other businesses to perform much of the work on the inside of the building.

Besides the theatre itself, the storefront is being used by the Soo Theatre Arts Resource Studio program. Started only six years ago, STARS is now bursting at the seams with more than 100 students participating in music, dance, painting, yoga, photography and other classes. In fact, additional space was rented across the street from the revamped theatre to accommodate the growth of the program, and business manager Gina Gough is looking for ways to acquire even more space for STARS in the coming years.

The tireless efforts of this group and the economic impact to the area have not gone unnoticed. The Soo Theatre Project was selected as one of six winners of the nationwide competitive 2009 Met Life Space Awards. They received $10,000 in "recognition of jumpstarting a local economic and cultural revitalization by bringing arts education and programming to a region."

"It is an outstanding example of excellent programming, socially progressive real estate development, and the ability to provide creative and economic sustenance in a community," says Judilee Reed, executive director, Levering Investments in Creativity.

The Soo Theatre project has a full slate of shows and classes on tap for the upcoming season.

Neil Moran is a full-time copywriter and owner of Haylake Business Communications, based in Sault Ste. Marie. You can view his services and read more of his articles via his website.

Shawn Malone is managing photographer and can be reached via email.


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