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Theater group wants to lease Elks Building

Posted 10/7/14

A theater group based in the midstate wants to lease the Elks Building in Middletown and turn it into a regional performing arts center.


Phantom Theatre Company sent a letter of intent seeking to enter into negotiations with the …

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Theater group wants to lease Elks Building


A theater group based in the midstate wants to lease the Elks Building in Middletown and turn it into a regional performing arts center.


Phantom Theatre Company sent a letter of intent seeking to enter into negotiations with the Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, which acquired the Elks Building from the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp. on Sept. 18.


The authority voted on Sept. 30 to approve the letter of intent, clearing the way for  discussions with the theater company. The letter of intent is nonbinding, obligating the authority and Phantom Theatre to do nothing more than hold talks in good faith, said authority Chairman Matt Tunnell.


However, Tunnell said the prospect of a performing arts center being located in the Elks is something exciting to ponder.


“I think there is some real eagerness to explore it and see where it goes,” Tunnell said. “We are thrilled.”


According to its Web site, Phantom is “a nonprofit theatre organization which strives to engage and entertain the community with professional theatre production standards in the central Pennsylvania area.”


Phantom Theatre’s most recent production, “Bare – A Pop Opera,” was staged at Gullifty’s Restaurant and Underground in Camp Hill, according to its Web site.


In its letter of intent to the authority, Phantom Theatre Company says that the community performing arts center proposed for the Elks Building “will include but not be limited to live performances such as dramatic theatre; musical theatre; dance; concerts; and other performances pursuant to the mission of Phantom Theatre Company.”


“PTC intends to honor the historic use of the Elks Theatre facility by continuing to use it at times as a movie theatre,’’ the letter said. “We are a community-oriented organization and look forward to nurturing growth of the arts in Middletown and the surrounding area with the potential for other community organizations to perform and use this space. We envision educational and other programs oriented to youth and families.”


The letter of intent is signed by Wendi Dobson, co-founder of Phantom Theatre Company and president of the PTC board. She did not return several phone calls from the Press And Journal seeking comment.


According to a story that ran in PennLive in January, Phantom Theatre Company was planning to turn the former River Rescue building on South Cameron Street in Harrisburg into a performing arts center.


Dobson’s husband, Philip Dobson, who is a real estate developer in Harrisburg, said that the River Rescue plan fell through when the city changed the zoning covering the property.


Phil Dobson said that the new designation would not allow for “soft uses” such as theater or retail. Under the city’s new rules, a performing arts center is not even allowed in the building under special exception.


That led Phantom Theatre to begin looking elsewhere for a place to carry out its vision. That search has led to the Elks.


“It’s such a beautiful theater, such a beautiful building, and a 100-year-old building,” said Phil Dobson. “I love historic buildings and I think the Elks Building really has a lot of character.”


He has experience in bringing new life to historic properties. He said he is just the third owner in the history of the 150-year-old Cameron homestead in the 400 block of N. Front St. in Harrisburg, which Dobson said he restored.


Dobson also has a track record in commercial development. Most recently, he has been a partner in transforming the former Sacred Heart Catholic Elementary School on South Cameron Street into the River City Blues Club and Dart Room, which opened in late August.


Phantom Theatre’s letter indicates that the company is interested in leasing the entire Elks Building. Besides the Elks Theatre, the building is home to one commercial tenant, Alma’s House of Flowers and Gifts, which has been in the Elks for 36 years.


Tunnell said that Alma’s has a current lease with the authority and that the authority is “obligated to live up to the terms” of that lease. He could not say when the lease will expire. However, Tunnell pledged that Alma’s is “absolutely part of the discussion” when it comes to what happens in the Elks Building going forward.


“We need to hear their ideas and vision. We are certainly going to work with them,” Tunnell said of Kathy Suhr, who has owned Alma’s for the last 21 years.


The authority currently has a month-to-month agreement with GMEDC for GMEDC to continue running the Elks Theatre. Asked what the talks with Phantom Theatre could lead to regarding the future of the theater, Tunnell said, “I don’t know,” because those discussions have not even begun.


But Tunnell said the authority remains committed to the theater. “We have to keep the lights on and continue to operate” the theater, he added, referring to the agreement with GMEDC.


At least for his part, Tunnell has said the authority’s goal is to stabilize the Elks Building physically and financially, and to eventually turn the property over to the private sector and the tax rolls.


While Phantom Theatre is a nonprofit, Tunnell noted that the group’s backers – including Philip Dobson – bring considerable experience in commercial ventures to the table that could come into play if the group leased the entire building.


He expects that the authority’s discussions with the group will focus on a “mixed use” concept for the building, referring to at least part of the property being devoted to purely commercial ventures to enhance the building’s revenue base.


Dobson said part of the attractiveness of the Elks Building is how it relates to plans currently underway for the redevelopment of Middletown.


“Hopefully it will be the cultural square of Middletown,” Dobson said of the Elks Building. “It’s always nice to be in an area where things are improving.”


Dan Miller: 717-944-4628, or