The Vogue Theatre: Restoring a Landmark through Partnerships in Manistee, Michigan

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Artist Rendering of the restored Vogue Theatre

Manistee, Michigan, located on the shores of Lake Michigan, just an hour south of Traverse City, became a Michigan Main Street Community in 2008.  Manistee's Downtown District has seen exceptional revitalization efforts during the past six years, including almost two dozen facade improvement projects, a large influx of committed volunteers, significant redevelopment of key properties and a declining vacancy rate – from over 25% in 2008 to just over 10% today.
 
Downtown Manistee is home to nearly 150 businesses and community resources. River Street, Manistee’s main downtown corridor, features an eclectic mix of retail shops, galleries, antique stores and restaurants. Its picturesque central business district is rich with history and original Victorian beauty. The entire Downtown District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  But perhaps the most intriguing feature is the Historic Vogue Theatre.

The Vogue’s renovation project is a perfect example of cooperation and partnerships for the good of the downtown and community.  Without the diligent support of major public and private organizations, this beautiful building would likely be headed for demolition. 

History of the Vogue Theatre

The Vogue opened its doors in 1938 as the first art-deco building in town, boasting state of the art projection and sound capabilities. With seating for over 900 patrons, the Vogue quickly became the destination of choice for the entire Manistee area and was a hub of Downtown Manistee for many years. The Vogue ran daily as a first-run movie house from 1938 - 2005, when an absentee owner, poor management and maintenance practices forced the Vogue to close its doors. This left a gaping hole in the commercial and entertainment fabric of Manistee and the entire region.  The void left by the closure of the Vogue, coupled with an ever deteriorating building, was a hotly-debated topic that rose to the top of many locals’ priority lists, including being identified as a priority by both the City of Manistee and the Manistee Main Street Downtown Development Authority (MSDDA).

In early 2010, the MSDDA received a generous grant from USDA Rural Development to fund a comprehensive feasibility study on the Vogue, including an in-depth structural analysis and a market study to determine the highest and best use of the property. That analysis came back stating that the building was structurally sound, that a movie theatre would indeed be feasible at that location, and laid out a rough framework for rehabilitation.

Later that year, the MSDDA seized an opportunity to purchase the Vogue Theatre property, closing on the $65,000 purchase just before Thanksgiving of 2010. It immediately took steps to stabilize the building, including making urgent roof, drain and exterior stucco repairs. The MSDDA quickly engaged the community through an all-volunteer leadership team and community focus groups to establish the best path forward.

In June 2011, the MSDDA transferred ownership of the property to the newly formed non-profit that was created to oversee the restoration process and ongoing operations of the Vogue.  The non-profit, Historic Vogue Theatre of Manistee (HVTM), is an all-volunteer, grassroots driven non-profit organization with a working, hands-on Board of Directors made up of community leaders. 

The revitalization model for the Vogue Project was based on the approach used for the restoration of the State Theatre in downtown Traverse City – recently named one of the top 10 movie theaters in the world. The combination of a non-profit model, grassroots community support and topnotch programming has launched the State Theatre into the upper echelons of cinema exhibition, contributing to a thriving downtown district for Manistee’s neighbor to the North.

Michael Moore, the champion of the State Theatre project and its ongoing leader and programmer, adopted the Vogue Theatre project as the State’s “sibling” and addressed a crowd of hundreds on the coldest day of 2011 under the crumbling marquee. He and Deb Lake, the Executive Director of the State Theatre and the Traverse City Film Festival serve on the HVTM board of directors and are involved with the major decisions made on the design of the theatre.

Role of Public/Private Partnerships in Community Development

While the success of Manistee Main Street and the Vogue Theatre proejct was the result of a unique set of circumstances – there are plenty of valuable take-aways that could help any Main Street program looking to make a similar impact. As stated in the National Main Street Center’s Organization Handbook, one primary advantage of implementing the “Four-Point Approach” in your community is “getting everyone working toward the same goal. The tough work of building consensus and cooperation among the groups that have an important stake in the district can be eased by using the common-sense formula of a volunteer-driven program…”  In a word, this is what we mean when we talk about “Partnerships” in a downtown revitalization program.

Strong partnerships are the foundation for a strong Main Street program. In order for a community development organization to succeed, it must have strong support from community partners. Bringing a group of organizations with varied purposes and goals together should be an easy sell, as long as those involved keep the ultimate goal of revitalizing and maintaining a vibrant commercial district in mind. The most common partners in downtown development include other civic organizations, the state and local governmental departments, chambers of commerce, convention and visitor bureaus, local economic development corporations and others. These public and private entities make great partners and can provide insight and make connections for the Main Street program.

It is important to realize that they are partners and, more importantly, equals. You have as much to offer these organizations as they have to offer to you. A strong downtown makes it easier for these partner organizations to recruit members, customers and clients, as well as larger businesses and industry to the community or regional as a whole.  

Getting Started

Under the direction of the HVTM, a formal capital campaign began in October 2011. With $515,000 already in the bank, the contractor was selected in 2012 and restoration began concurrent with fundraising in October of that year. To date, over $1.9 million has been raised toward the $2.4 million goal, reflecting donations and grants from over 700 contributors and 500 volunteers. This includes over $100,000 in-kind or cash donations from numerous local businesses. “For a community the size of Manistee to raise that amount of money in a relatively short period of time is nothing to shake a stick at,” notes Beth Wallace, Fund Development Coordinator for the Vogue's capital campaign. “The generosity of the people of Manistee, as well as local and regional businesses and private foundations is impressive. You can tell that this project means a lot to a great many people.”

Highlights of a few of the partnerships that have made this project possible include:

-The Manistee City Council who formally recognized the importance of the rehabilitation by naming it a priority in early 2010 and forgave back-taxes allowing the MSDDA to purchase the property;

-Michael Moore and the Traverse City State Theatre who challenged the community to re-open The Vogue;

-The Alliance for Economic Success who serves as the primary organization for coordinating fund development and the The Manistee County Community Foundation who receives and manages Vogue grants and donations;

-Home Depot who sent a team of volunteers to help remove the seats in 2011;  

-Manistee Main Street Downtown Development Authority who contributed a matching grant of $25,000, a loan of $200,000, and the donation of the building itself.

-The Frey Foundation who donated $100,000 and The Oleson Foundation who donated $200,000;

-Manistee County Historical Society, who assembled the history, stories and photos of the building;

-Consumers Energy Foundation who presented a $30,000 grant, the Manistee Industrial Development Corporation who made a $39,000 grant, and Manistee High School National Honor Society who contributed $1,000;

-The Jaycees who made the Vogue their “signature project” for 2012 and devoted all funds raised from various efforts to the project;

-The Michigan Economic Development Corporation who contributed $500,000 through the use of a Community Revitalization Grant for the specific purpose of restoring significant buildings in historic downtowns; and

-The countless number of community volunteers, local merchants, and others who donated their time and money and hosted events and fundraisers.

What’s Next for The Vogue

The Vogue Theatre Project is a complete rehabilitation of the theatre – inside and out – including mechanical and plumbing systems, roofing and a totally renovated interior with two screens. The large “grand theatre” will seat 190, while the smaller screen will seat 45. The completely rebuilt lobby and lounge area and concession stand will emphasize operational efficiency and provide a top-notch experience for film-goers. State-of-the-art digital projection equipment and facilities are being outfitted by industry leader Boston Light & Sound. A future Phase Two includes a third screen on the second level and the addition of a balcony in the grand theatre.

On September 30, 2013 Travis Alden was hired as the full-time manager and the theatre was opened for the first time for public viewing. “In terms of technology, design and aesthetics, the Vogue will be one of the top ten cinema venues in the country,” says Travis Alden. “That is important for everyone to know. This project isn't just 'clean-up-and-apply-some-paint' project. We're creating a world-class movie house.” According to Alden, the programming at the Vogue will consist of first-run films and special series of movies such as low-priced children's matinees, classics and independent films.

The Vogue is poised to meet its goal to open during the 25th Annual Victorian Sleighbell Festival, held December 4 – 8, 2013, which attracts thousands to the City. Meg Voelker, one of the first volunteers for the effort and now a member of the HVTM’s board of directors says,  “What better way to celebrate the holidays than to be a part of one of the biggest and most impactful projects Manistee has ever seen? The Vogue will be here for families to enjoy for years to come.” Without a doubt, the renovated and reopened Vogue Theatre, and the community-driven process that will support it, will be economic game changers for the City of Manistee, the County and the Region.

For more information on Manistee Main Street, please go to www.manisteedowntown.com. For information on the theatre, contact Travis Alden, Vogue Theatre Manager at www.voguetheatremanistee.org.

Listen to a radio interview with Travis Alden