Originally Published: December 26, 2012 10 p.m.
PRESCOTT - When the City of Prescott bought the Elks Opera House in 2001, officials were clear on one point: The city should not become a long-term operator of the theater.
Then-Mayor Sam Steiger stated at the time that the city was looking to get the theater "in the hands of someone who could make use of it."
The city's purchase was viewed largely as an attempt to preserve the historic landmark.
The Arizona Community Foundation, which had owned the theater since the early 1980s, was looking to sell it. In January 2001, the city agreed to pay $250,000 for the theater portion of the Gurley Street building.
Noting that the city was not interested in trying to recover the money that would go into the theater's renovations, Steiger added, "What we want is a viable operator."
With this month's sale of the theater to the non-profit Elks Theatre and Performing Arts Center, theater supporters say the city has finally achieved that early goal.
A Dec. 21 news release from the Elks Opera House Foundation, the theater's main advocate over the past decade, stated that the organization welcomes the city's recent sale.
"The future of this remarkable property, listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as the City of Prescott historic register, is now assured, with a new foundation in ownership of the entire building..." stated the Foundation's news release.
The Dec. 11 purchase by the Performing Arts Center brings the entire 1905 building under common ownership for the first time in decades.
This past September, the Performing Arts Center announced that it had purchased the non-theater portion of the building from the Murphy, Schmitt, Hathaway & Wilson law firm, which has long occupied office space in the building.
At that time, a sale of the theater portion of the building was still in limbo. Just the month before, the city had halted negotiations with a rejection of the Elks Theatre and Performing Arts Center's offer to buy the theater for $500,000.
That offer was the result of a request for proposals (RFP) that the city released in May, seeking buyers interested in the historic theater. In its efforts to operate the theater over the past decade, the city reportedly had been losing about $100,000 per year.
The RFP generated just one proposal - from the Elks Theatre and Performing Art Center, which has an anonymous donor.
While the organization had agreed to the city's stringent list of requirements for continued maintenance and operation of the theater, City Council members deemed the $500,000 cash offer too low.
Information from the city indicated that $1.38 million of public money had gone into the theater over the past decade, and Mayor Marlin Kuykendall said at the time that $1.3 million was the threshold of acceptable offers.
Negotiations between the two parties resumed, and ultimately resulted in a new purchase offer: $1.3 million to the city, with $300,000 being credited back to the buyer to help cover the cost of restoring the deteriorating exterior of the Elks building.
By unanimous vote on Dec. 11, the Prescott City Council approved the sale, and the transaction closed escrow on Dec. 21.
Just days after the council's approval, the organization's architect, Frank DeGrazia, took plans for the exterior restoration to the Prescott Preservation Commission.
That plan has the Performing Art Center putting as much as $1.5 million into such improvements as repair of the worn bricks, restoration of the loose surface coating, replacement of the leaking windows, restoration of the second- and third-floor balconies, and stabilization of the fire escapes.
The exterior restoration plans got the unanimous approval of the Preservation Commission.
DeGrazia said the exterior work is just the first of what could be a three-phase project.
Next up will be the restoration of the second and third floors of the building's interior, which currently serve as office space.
That work will center on the creation of a performing arts center, DeGrazia said, and could include features such as dance areas, a small catering kitchen, new mechanical and electrical systems, and a new elevator. The estimated cost of the second phase has yet to be determined.
A possible third phase could tackle restoration of the dressing room area in the lower level.
The theater originally was the property of the Elks Lodge #330. In the early-to-mid-1970s, the Lodge sold the building to local law firm Head, Toci, Musgrove & Murphy, which later sold the theater portion to the Arizona Community Foundation.
Since the city's purchase in 2001, the Elks Opera House Foundation has spearheaded a massive restoration of the theater.
"After raising more than $1.75 million for capital improvements and furnishings over a 10-year period, the Foundation transitioned to promoting, supporting, and producing 17 events in our first season," stated the Foundation's news release.
The Foundation is now well into its second season, and plans to offer a number of productions over the next eight months.
"The Elks Opera House Foundation and the Elks Opera House Foundation Guild look forward to a working relationship with the new owners as we all continue to maintain the integrity and availability of the Elks Opera House for the Prescott community and beyond," the release stated.
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