After months of cleaning out the former Columbia Theatre building in downtown Harlem, city officials are eagerly waiting for funding to turn the historic building into a cultural arts education center.
"We're ready to start jumping in and tearing out walls," Mayor Scott Dean said.
But construction is on hold as the Harlem Economic Development and Industry Foundation tries to raise the $600,000 to $750,000 it will take to renovate and restore the building into one used for teaching visual arts and drama classes and a performing arts theater.
"We're waiting on funds and we're writing grants and doing fundraising," said Ann Blalock, the head of the Harlem Foundation. "We want to get enough money to at least start on the fine arts part of it - the front part of the building, where we can do the teaching of drama and the teaching of art lessons."
On Thursday, Georgia Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Mike Beatty toured the theater building. The city recently applied for a $75,000 state grant that, if approved, would be distributed to them through the department.
Blalock said she estimates nearly $85,000 is needed to transform the former apartment and film rooms on the second and third floor building front into an area for teaching. The large windows allow plenty of natural light, but new and safe wiring and restroom facilities are needed in addition to a renovation of the rooms.
In the end, Harlem officials want to return the Columbia Theatre building to its cultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s, when it showed new movies. The theater, owned and run by Bill Griffin, closed in the mid-1960s when the popularity of television and competition from new theaters elsewhere in the Augusta area proved too much for the business.
Since closing, the theater building has housed several businesses, including a Georgia Natural Gas office, an antiques store and a consignment shop.
The building stood vacant for several years before the Harlem Foundation purchased it for $75,209 in January 2005.
"We've got ideas galore ..." Blalock said. "We're going to do some pretty significant things between now and next fall. We're just kind of at a standstill right now."
Julie Miller, the executive director of the Family Connection of Columbia County, is assisting with researching and writing grants. Dean said he's still waiting to hear a response on state funds to assist in the project.
In the meantime, the building is not sitting empty. During the Oliver Hardy Festival in October, Blalock said, the bottom floor was used as an ice cream shop and art gallery. It also has been used as the site of a murder mystery dinner theater put on by the Harlem High School drama department and the site of a Haunted House for Halloween.
"We do whatever we can with it ..." Blalock said. "I just wish I'd been one of those people that won the lottery."
Dean said donations are being accepted to assist with the renovation and the name of the soon-to-be cultural arts center is available for anyone with a special interest in the project and the ability to make a large donation.
Anyone interested helping the renovation effort can mail donations to The Harlem Foundation, P.O. Box 99, Harlem, GA 30814.
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