The historic Columbia Theatre will begin work on some much-needed upgrades this summer, thanks to a grant applied for via the St. Helens Economic Development Corporation (SHEDCO). The $200,000 grant for renovations was announced last week by Oregon Heritage, a division of Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. SHEDCO received one of 30 matching grants statewide awarded to Oregon Main Street Network organizations for building projects that encourage economic revitalization.
The grant application process
Grant availability was announced by Oregon Mainstreet in late December of 2018. SHEDCO sent out over 200 letters announcing the availability to every property owner along the St. Helens Mainstreet, detailing deadline information for potential projects. SHEDCO Chairman Al Petersen said the letters yielded nine applications for nine different properties in St. Helens – eight for remodel projects and one for new construction.
From there, the SHEDCO board created scoring criteria based on project capacity, potential positive impact to the Main Street District, and alignment with the grant program priorities. During a board meeting, applicants were invited to make presentations where they received feedback. “The Columbia Theatre was the one that received the most points and was unanimously chosen,” Petersen said.
From there, Petersen said he and Columbia Theatre co-owner Leah Tollitson worked together to fill out the grant application. “It’s a very extensive application. It asks all kinds of questions about statistics we had to look up from the census bureau, income levels in St. Helens, how many empty buildings there are, how many new businesses there are and how many businesses have closed in the past few years – that sort of thing,” Petersen said. “And then of course, she had to work with contractors, estimators and people to come up with the budget and the things that she wanted to include.”
The application was formally submitted on March 8. SHEDCO officials said both the City of St. Helens and the South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce wrote “very supportive” letters, as did some of the theatre’s neighboring businesses.
Since SHEDCO sponsored the theatre, the group will continue to participate throughout the renovation process as the local grant administrator, working with Oregon Heritage and Oregon Mainstreet, submitting remodel plans and coordinating between the owners and Oregon Mainstreet for grant reimbursements during construction.
Part of the grant requires a 30% match in funding, volunteer time, or in-kind donations. Together with the Tillotsons, SHEDCO will help organize fundraisers and volunteer work parties to meet the grant requirements.
The work ahead
The funding will be used for several upgrades at the theatre, but Leah and her husband, co-owner Lance, said the first item on the agenda is putting in a new family restroom on the main floor. “I have very nice neighbors and they will let people use their restrooms, but it’s still quite a hike to come out of the theatre and clear back to the back of the buildings to get to their restrooms,” Leah said. “It’s just not an ideal situation.”
The next priority is seating. The current seats, Lance said, were actually purchased used from Universal Studios. “The old owner that we bought it from went down and purchased them from a Universal showing room. So, of course, at the time they were super nice seats for the time, movie stars had actually sat in them, but they were used then, and they’re just worn out now,” Lance said. “You can only weld things so many times before they’re just done.”
The new seats will be high-back rockers with arms that come up and cup holders already installed, as opposed to the current cupholders that were added on later. “The seats will come up, so you can cuddle with whoever’s come to the movie with you,” Leah said with a chuckle.
This is one area where the grant being unusually broad will be helpful, as Lance said most grants would never allow money to be used for things like seating. “It’s not like they’re holding the building up or anything like that, but this grant is really special because of what it’s trying to do is make your business more successful so that more people come down here and that can affect other businesses,” Lance said.
The third “big item” on the agenda is the replacement of the historic marquee. “Ours looks okay, but it has a lot of rust in it and it’s not going to last much longer. They’re going to let us replace that with basically a marquee that looks the same but is structurally sound,” Leah said.
The Tollitsons also plan to renovate the upstairs restrooms, with Lance adding the men’s restroom specifically is “a little too intimate for a bathroom.” The funding will also allow them to replace and install carpet and other interior finishes. These projects will be completed provided there are no “surprises” with the new bathroom’s plumbing.
The work will remain local, with Matt Gartman Construction having already been tapped to provide some of the work. However, the community at large will also have an opportunity to pitch in with the work done at the 90-year-old theatre. Leah said there are several things the grant will not cover. “It’s 90 years old, and I kind of sat down and thought, ‘what does it need to set it up for the next 90 years to make sure it gets to stay and not be repurposed?’ And I made a list,” she said. “Some of it is just easy stuff, you know, come help us sand the floor before we put the seats down.”
It is this volunteer effort the Tollitsons seem the most excited for. They feel it is the community that has ultimately kept the theatre alive for the past nine decades. “When Boise left and staffing and finances were so hard, this theatre kept ticking away, and I think it’s because people here loved it and they wanted it to,” Leah said. “In my mind, it’s not just our theatre, it’s everybody’s theatre.”
“I want people to be able to go by and take their kids and say, ‘Oh, I helped sand that floor. I helped put that seat in.’” Leah said. “It should be that, and we want people to feel involved in it.”
For now, the Tollitsons are knee-deep in week two of the ‘Avengers: Endgame’ run, which will likely be showing at the Columbia Theatre for the next two weeks. You can follow the theatre’s progress on Facebook by following SHEDCO’s page, as well as the Columbia Theatre page, where you will find upcoming opportunities to get involved.