Somerset Council went on a land-buying spree Monday night, with the cheapest purchase being that of the historic Virginia Theater building on East Mount Vernon Street.
Three other land purchases were also approved by council members, two of which may serve to become a Veteran’s Memorial park and one of which will add to the South Main Street entrance of Rocky Hollow Park.
The city agreed to take over the ailing theater from the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation, which has owned it since 2003.
The building has sat mostly empty since the cinema closed in 1994, with several attempts at revitalizing the space being undertaken and only a handful of performances conducted since.
A push to remove hazardous materials from the building began in the spring of 2018, which allowed the space to be usable enough for audiences to attend two performances from the Blackbird Dance Theatre – one in September 2018 and one exactly a year later – as well as a screening of “Casablanca” on a bare back wall during a June 2018 Block Party hosted by the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce.
Beyond that, the building has sat empty, a shadow of its former glory.
During the council meeting, Mayor Alan Keck explained that the city will be taking the deed with the expectation of continuing renovation plans, although they are under no obligation to do so.
“We’re accepting the deed because we’re, in principal, agreeing to do something on it, and if we decide not to then eventually it would go back to Downtown Development,” he said.
The Downtown Somerset Development Corporation board of directors agreed in September to hand over the property with the understanding that the building’s use would be restricted to arts, entertainment and historical purposes.
They stipulated that the building must be functional by the end of 2022 or it will revert back to the development board.
The city purchased the property for $1.
In jest, Councilor Jerry Wheeldon asked, “What bank are we borrowing that money from?”
“The bank of my front pocket, so far,” Keck replied.
In a statement given to the Commonwealth Journal after the meeting, Keck followed up by saying, “We are confident we can perform the necessary renovations, bring the building up to code, install proper facilities and revive the Virginia as a mixed-use facility people of this community can enjoy while also honoring the past.”
Keck said city resources and staff would be used to operate the facility. “It would be our intention to work with local groups and organizations to host productions in the space once complete,” Keck said.
Council also approved the purchase of three other properties, two on the corner of North Main and Oak Street and one on South Main.
The two by North Main are located across the street from Dairy Queen and are expected to be the location of a Veterans Memorial park.
The city bought 100 Oak Street for $45,000 and 300 North Main Street for $70,000.
The city also bought the property at 436 South Main Street for $50,000. That property adjoins the walking trail entrance of Rocky Hollow Park.
“We’re looking at expanding our entrance and maybe creating a more welcoming and inviting entrance to the park, possibly even some extra parking,” Keck said.