Setting the Stage for the Beacon Theatre

Community gathers to discuss plans

by Brian PJ Cronin

It was standing room only upstairs at Beacon’s BeaHive on Tuesday, Oct. 27, as over 80 people came to discuss the proposed changes for The Beacon Theatre on Main Street — and what, if anything, the public can do to influence the direction of the project.

As The Paper reported on Aug. 21 and Sept. 11, the future of the 80-year old theater has proved divisive since the space was sold to Brendan McAlpine of McAlpine Construction over the summer. At the time, the space was occupied by 4th Wall Productions, who bought the building from developer William Ehrlich in 2010.

Ehrlich retained the note to the building and 4th Wall paid the mortgage to him. But with 4th Wall behind in their mortgage payments, foreclosure threatened until McAlpine — whose family also had a lien on the building as a result of about $200,000 worth of outstanding debts for renovation work done on behalf of 4th Wall — stepped in and bought it.

While the news was first welcomed, moods darkened once word got out that McAlpine’s plan would change 4th Wall’s original plan to restore the space to an 800-seat theater, and instead build a 195-seat multi-purpose performance space with 32 residential units.

That led to the creation of a community group, Save The Beacon Theater. Led by BeaHive’s Scott Tillitt, and Cabot Parsons, chair of the City of Beacon’s Arts and Cultural Development Committee, the group called this public meeting to solicit community engagement.

“We’re not here tonight to say ‘We’re going to stop the project and bring in a rainbow filled theater with unicorns out front,’” said Tillitt. “We’re just going to tell you what the plans are, we’re going to hear what your concerns are, and that if we can change the project in any way we’d like to incorporate the voice of the community as much as possible.”

At the suggestion of their attorneys and the recommendation of Beacon’s Planning Board, the McAlpines did not attend the event. But they did meet privately with members of the group beforehand. Tillitt said that during the private meeting he and his fellow Save The Beacon Theatre members expressed their concerns as well as concerns heard so far from the community at large.

Chief are the significant economical and cultural benefits that a large scale working theater could bring to Beacon, versus the relatively smaller benefits that a smaller performance space and residential units would bring. With no other large scale performance spaces currently available, Parsons worried that if the theater is gutted it would put a ceiling on Beacon’s cultural growth.

“The visual arts helped put Beacon back on the map,” he said, “But now the live music scene is transforming Beacon, and it doesn’t room to have expand. Community groups don’t have room to expand, the Beacon Independent Film Festival needs space to expand.” Although the Towne Crier has attracted household names like Ani DiFranco and Rickie Lee Jones to Beacon, it has a 200-seat capacity. For the aforementioned concerts, tickets sold out quickly.

“When we asked people last year as part of a county-wide survey what they would like to see more of in their community, resoundingly, right at the top of that list is ‘Performing arts and live theater,’” said Linda Marston-Reid, the executive director of Arts Mid-Hudson. She noted that tourists who attend such events are more likely to spend the night, which would mean more time spent on Main Street shopping and eating.

While Beacon is currently facing a housing shortage, City Council Member Peggy Ross noted that there are currently 475 residential units in the works.

“When you approach it as ‘What does the city need at this point?’ I would say that 32 additional residential units doesn’t really hit it,” said former mayor Steve Gold. “But the advantage of having a theater there that’s professional, that’s being utilized correctly and bringing in the public, I think the economic impact of that would be far greater. And it speaks to why people visit Beacon and why so many of them then decide to move here.”

Gold’s comments raised another concern: That the theater space as currently proposed by the McAlpines might prove inadequate.

“I want to make it clear that when they say that their plan has a theater, that it doesn’t,” said Save The Beacon Theater’s Stephanie Hepburn. “It has a meeting room with a raised stage. A theater requires a backstage, set-building capabilities, and dressing rooms. What we’re really looking at is a rectangular room like the one we’re in right now, with a raised stage. It would be good for lectures, for book clubs, and for knitting groups. But it wouldn’t be a theater.”

Kelly Ellenwood, vice president of BeaconArts, agreed. “If we can give any positive feedback as a group, it’s to make sure that the theater space that gets built is a viable one,” she said. “As it is now, I personally feel that it’s not viable. Why build something if it’s not adequate? Because it won’t be used.”

The public’s next chance to weigh in on the project will be Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 7 p.m. when the plan is presented again to the Planning Board at City Hall. In the meantime, Beacon Mayor Randy Casale urged those in attendance to move forward in a peaceable manner, as their legal options were few.

“They bought the building, they own the building, they put money into the building, the best thing to do is try and work with them,” said the mayor. “Because it looks like the cards are stacked against you.”

“But,” he added with a smile, “the McAlpines own a hotel right down the street. If a 750-seat theater could work in that space, it would be a boon to their business. I think they know that. So I think you’re on the right track.”

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