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Local News

'This miracle is coming soon': team prepares plans for Wheaton Grand Theater revitalization

WHEATON — When Jim Atten and Rick Erickson walk into the downtown Egg'lectic Cafe, just a short distance from the Wheaton Grand Theater on Hale Street, a customer ahead of them turns around to ask if they're associated with the Wheaton Grand Theater.

After they say they are, she tells them how excited she is about the plans for the theater.

Receiving this kind of support is not new for the two longtime Wheaton residents: Atten, the new owner of the theater, and Erickson, one of the driving forces behind bringing the theater back to life.

"The people that just said, 'Hey, we're really excited about the theater' — that's really not that uncommon," Erickson said, after speaking to the resident. "People are hearing about it; they're excited about it."

This most recent effort to re-open the Wheaton Grand began in fall 2011, when Erickson, vice president of the Wheaton Chamber of Commerce, founded the "Wheaton Junto" with other community leaders looking to improve the city.

The theater, which opened in 1925, has been home to both live performances and movie showings since it was built. In 2001, ownership of the theater was transferred to the non-profit Grand Theater Corporation.

The site was closed in 2006 for a previous renovation project that ultimately resulted in the surrender of the property to Suburban Bank and Trust of Elmhurst in 2010.

The Wheaton Junto adopted the theater as its main project and brainstormed ideas for what could be done with the space. However, there was one piece missing: an owner who would understand the legacy of the theater and desire to preserve it, just as Junto members did.

Enter Atten, a lifelong Wheaton resident and owner of other properties in the city. Atten officially purchased the theater on Nov. 30, and since then, he's been busy working with architectural firm Kolbrook Design, Inc., on a plan for the building.

After the plan is finalized, it will be presented to the Wheaton City Council to obtain the necessary permits for more serious construction. Teams have been able to complete some work, including tearing down non-bearing walls and removing asbestos, under a demolition permit from the city.

The plan for the Wheaton Grand is to stay true to its past life, re-opening the space as a 650-seat venue for live performances, special events and eventually, movie showings.

Work that needs to be completed includes replacing part of the roof, installing new building utilities, adding lighting and sound for performances, redoing parts of the design with plaster and paint, and building an addition for dressing rooms, storage, offices and other spaces. The estimated total cost of the project is $5 million, and the hope is to fundraise that entire amount.

Erickson formed a fundraising committee in December, which will begin serious fundraising efforts after a final plan for the theater has been developed and approved.

Some of the steps the committee is planning to take to raise funds include hosting events and meeting with businesses, community members and other stakeholders interested in supporting the project.

The committee also will research possible grants that would apply to the project to renovate the theater, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.

A website for the Wheaton Grand Theater project is expected to launch this week.

Erickson said he is 100-percent confident the project will be completed and the theater will re-open. The goal date for its grand opening is July 4, 2014. When it re-opens, the non-profit Grand Theater Corporation will be responsible for running the theater as Atten's tenants.

"This is going to happen," Erickson said. "This miracle is coming soon."

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