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‘A vanguard to downtown’

Cape Fear Regional Theatre is undergoing $16 million in renovations and expansion as it looks to the future.


Editor’s note: Cape Fear Regional Theatre’s $200,000 in earned income last year was not tied to fundraising. This story has been corrected. It also has been updated to include several contributors.

Within a few years, the Cape Fear Regional Theatre – both inside and out – will no longer look exactly as it does now.

The theater is undergoing an estimated $16 million renovation and expansion that will upgrade and expand the building for decades to come. In the process, theater-goers should be more comfortable while watching a show with the additional leg space from a seating upgrade.

Work on the 22,484-square-foot theater will take place over two phases of construction.

The last time the building underwent renovations was in 1988.

“It is a vanguard to downtown,” said Mary Kate Burke, the theater’s artistic director. “It’s one of the first things you see as you go downtown.”

Phase one has been completed.

The work was done while the theater was closed during the pandemic.

On Feb. 20, theater staff staged a party to celebrate the completed work from phase one. Approximately 200 people attended the event where they could see an image of how the facility would look after the second phase has wrapped up.

The initial phase consisted of a $1 million upgrade to the interior of the building, including a 2- to 4-inch widening of the seats and 4- to 6-inch deeper rows for more legroom. The new layout will have seating for 285, a modest reduction from the previous 303.

Other enhancements have been made, such as new carpeting and the addition of handrails on the lower half of the theater proper. The seating area also has been updated with a handicap location for easier access to those who rely on it.

 A new custom sound system has also been installed.

“We have had two shows in the theater and people were – no pun intended – blown away by the improved sound,” said Ella Wrenn, the managing director of Cape Fear Regional Theatre.

A new fresh air HVAC system and all new lighting were also installed. Like most movie theaters today, cup holders have been placed in the theater proper.

“I believe the renovations and expansion are necessary so we can take that theater – which is the cornerstone of the Fayetteville community – into the future. So it’s something standing 30, 40 years from now,” said Cheryl Burns, who has been a member of the theater’s board of directors for about nine years.

Of the $1 million expenditure for phase one, $550,000 was raised from individual contributions and $450,000 came from a combination of foundations.

“I’m absolutely thrilled,” Burns said of the work completed thus far. “The only thing they could have done early – which will come later – are the bathrooms.”

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the theater.

Burns called the theater “a gem of this community. It allows talent of this community to showcase. And I believe it tells great stories. Gives us something to think about. It gives us a different perspective.”

Wrenn described the ongoing reconstruction work “a 50-year vision.”

“We want this institution to be here 50 years from now. So the only way that happens is by setting it up for success now so it can flourish long past any of our tenure here now,” she said. “Like when we think about this building, we’re imagining that this is the institution’s next 50 years.”

The state has earmarked a one-time direct grant of $5 million to the theater for the work from the budget’s overall allocation of $412 million to Cumberland County.

That money, the two theater leaders say, will be invested in the theater renovation and expansion project.

“All of our currently elected officials did a good job working across the aisle to bring home the most money for Cumberland County,” Burke said. “Because people come here to do business with Bragg and leave, we don’t have as many corporate headquarters as (other top cities). So this funding in this current budget cycle is going to be transformational for the whole county. It’s not just for us.”

The theater also received support from the Cannon Foundation, the Cumberland Community Foundation and the Westreich Finaly Foundation to support rigging and sound upgrades.

Burke is the third artistic director in the theater’s history.

Bo Thorp, who is now 88, was the first, serving 50 years as artistic director. She described the renovations and pending expansion as "a big move forward" for the local theater.

"I think it was the smartest thing they have done lately," Thorp said. "They used the time when the pandemic was on to get some things done. Obviously, people love the theater because they paid for it. They (theater staff) raised $1 million without much concern. People come to the front to do what's right.

"The biggest thing - the seats are just great. It's really been a positive thing for them to do," she said. "And something they could get done while they couldn't produce plays."

"People don't realize that theaters like ours don't exist everywhere," said Thorp. "That's all worked out. I guess we can all take credit for that."

On an annual basis, Burke said, approximately 49,000 people attend productions and utilize other services offered by the theater.

“We both believe that this institution plays a vital role in this community and that the arts are an essential part of this community-building, livability, work and play. All the things that make places desirable places to live,” Wrenn said.

Burke added, “I think the reason why it is so important is because prior to COVID-19, our institution had undergone tremendous growth, which demonstrates there is a need and desire from the community to have cultural offerings like what we offer here at Cape Fear Regional Theatre. Additionally, that this was a very strategic time for us to undergo these renovations because it quite frankly saved us anywhere in the (realm) of $400,000 in business interruption that we would have suffered that we were already suffering because of the pandemic.

So we were able to take advantage of the time.”

Building renovations

The second phase of work, a projected $15 million expenditure with construction expected to get underway around the summer of 2023, includes a large-scale renovation and reimagining of the building as a whole.

"We are landlocked," Burke said. "If we want more space, we have to build upward. Add another level to the building. So we have this thesis statement that if we have more space, we can serve more people in our community. The demand is there.”

Burke said without the usual classes and without play rehearsals during the pandemic, education classes were offered at the theater. “In one semester, our education classes grew by 89%. We had an 89% increase in enrollment,” she said, “Just based on the fact that we could have classes Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday instead of only on Monday.”

The second phase of the work will add a second-floor expansion, an expansion of the scene shop, classroom space, an elevator and the addition of an administrative office suite. It could also include some work on the rooftop.

At this point, the theater has raised $9.5 million of the overall projected $15 million cost of this second round.

“We believe that our most precious community commodity is giving people our time. We invite them and inspire them to live a fuller life with the time that they have with arts and education,” Burke said.

Burke and Wrenn expressed their appreciation for the state lawmakers who represent Fayetteville and Cumberland County and the work they did to get the theater funding in the state budget.

The theater utilizes a lobbyist who works on its benefit in Raleigh, Burke said, and they met with Rep. John Szoka, Sen. Kirk deViere and Rep. Diane Wheatley and talked about all of the programming that the theater does. They also discussed the impact that they have in the Fayetteville community and the vision that they have for the future.

“They challenged us to raise a million dollars locally,” Burke said. “One of the things they expressed is that the state can sometimes be apprehensive about giving funding for capital projects. If your total raise is, let’s say, $15 million, but you only get $5 (million) from the state where’s that other $10 (million) going to come from. If you don’t raise that other $10 (million), the state can’t claw back the money that they gave you. The funding is going into operations instead of solving the infrastructure problem.”

If the theater could raise $1 million locally, the women were told, it would demonstrate their commitment to making this project happen.

“It will become easier for us to fight for you,” Burke said they were told.

Within four months, the theater was able to meet that challenge. The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County contributed $250,000, the Cumberland Community Foundation donated $500,000 and the Fayetteville Public Works Commission contributed another $250,000. At the time the campaign went public, Will Gillis and Ralph and Linda Huff had also made significant commitments in support of the theatre's redevelopment, Wrenn said.

“I think any time we can invest in arts and the types of programs that Cape Fear Regional provides, like the children’s programming, working with kids, access to the theater programs for kids who have never been exposed to that before. I think the work the theater does in our community is extremely important,” deViere said.

DeViere filed legislation to appropriate funds for Cape Fear Regional Theatre in the state Senate.

DeViere’s wife, Jenny, is a member of the theater’s board of directors. “There are no ethical issues or compliance issues with that,” he said. “I don’t control the funds.”

The theater functions on an annual operating budget of $1.7 million, according to Burke. Of that money, $700,000 is contributed.

But last year, the theater’s $1 million earned income plummeted by 80% – it was only able to earn $200,000, she said.

“That was because you could not produce like we normally do,” she said. “We were very innovative and found different ways to do so.”

DeViere said he has attended performances at the theater probably as long as he has lived in the area. “Our theater over the last years under the leadership of Mary Kate has really taken our theater to a new level. I think it’s really part of the fabric of our community. It’s an economic driver.”

Burke said the theater is poised to emerge from the pandemic stronger than when it entered the pandemic.

"Thanks to the incredible support of our community, the board, the staff and all of those who have supported the renovations," she said. "What is exciting is that we're seeing people who are truly hungry wanting to return to the live arts in a way that's exceeding the pre-pandemic hunger for the arts. We're really noticing that people are so desperate for community and are seeking out opportunities to experience life and have something to celebrate.

"The human spirit has a need to be lifted and celebrated," she said, "and we're grateful to be a part of that here."

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Cape Fear Regional Theatre, Fayetteville, downtown, renovation, expansion