The Wayne Theatre marked its formal grand reopening on Tuesday with an event featuring local and state leaders, downtown business owners and the volunteers who made the $11 million renovation of the 1926 landmark happen.
“What a journey this has been,” said Tracy Straight, who served on the board of directors of the Wayne Theatre Alliance for 16 years before taking over as executive director last year.
The event, which ended with the more than 125 people in attendance joining together on the stage for a ribbon cutting with the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce, took place against the backdrop of a local political controversy.
Waynesboro City Council has directed City Manager Mike Hamp to leave $140,000 that was to be earmarked toward the paydown on the construction of the Wayne out of the upcoming 2016-2017 city budget.
Hamp and City Councilmen Frank Lucente and Tim Williams were in attendance for the ribbon cutting, and Mayor Bruce Allen was on the stage and offered remarks on the occasion, though he avoided addressing the funding matter.
“I can close my eyes and transform myself back to the late 1950s and early ’60s when I was a youth, and I would come here for shows, movies and fellowship with my friends. My congratulations to the Wayne Theatre Alliance and to all the volunteers for all the work that they’ve done over the past several years to get us to this point,” Allen said.
The politics over the performance agreement between the city and the Wayne Theatre Alliance, which would have the city contributing $700,000 toward the construction, might as well have had its own seat on the stage with Allen and the dignitaries on hand to mark the milestone day.
“I really believe this is going to be a cornerstone of the redevelopment that we’re going to continue to experience in downtown. It’s a very important piece of our community,” said Jim Hyson, the chairman of the Waynesboro Economic Development Authority, a party to the performance agreement that City Council is now trying to wiggle itself out of.
“This is your theater, and it’s not just a theater. It’s part of Waynesboro’s cultural industry,” said Linda Hershey, the president and CEO of the Greater Augusta Regional Chamber of Commerce. “Remember what you’re hearing in the news these days. Quality of life is the number one reason that (businesses) relocate to a community. What this theater has to offer is a big part of that quality of life.”
Controversy aside, the focus was on celebrating hard work well done.
State Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, was at the theater for a show last week, and described at the grand opening event Tuesday how “there was life in this building, there was energy in this building, that if you weren’t here, I’m not sure we could describe it to you, but it was terrific.”
“In this region, we are very proud of our history, and we should be. History takes a long time sometimes, and it took a long time to make this happen,” Bell said. “One of the best things about history is when you have an opportunity to make history. And that’s what’s happening here. The folks involved with the resurrection of the Wayne are making history, and you have an opportunity to be a part of that, and I hope you take advantage of that.”
State Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, also took notice of the sustained effort that led to the reopening of the Wayne.
“To have a project like this be successful, first you have to have a vision, second you have to build the support, and then third you have to follow through and make sure that your goal in the end is actually achieved, and that’s not an easy endeavor in this day and age,” Landes said. “The Wayne was able to be successful and accomplish what we’re celebrating today even under what I would consider the greatest recession we’ve probably had, and that’s no small feat.”
Landes said the Wayne Theatre will have an impact beyond the Waynesboro city limits.
“This venue serves the region and the Commonwealth of Virginia, and as a representative for the area, I can tell you that many of us from Augusta County, Staunton, Waynesboro, Charlottesville and Albemarle will be coming to the Wayne Theatre to take advantage of this great facility,” Landes said.
Bill Hausrath, the chairman of the Wayne Theatre Alliance, noted that the theatre drew more than 2,500 paying customers for shows in its first month, and had an additional 1,000 area schoolchildren on hand for education-themed performances.
“The heart and soul of a community is its education, its arts and its entertainment,” Hausrath said. “The completion and opening of the Wayne Theatre/Ross Performing Arts Center represents a significant addition to the culture, status and economic viability of our region. Much like the Blackfriars Theater, Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, we will become a destination for tourists and visitors.
“There are still remaining doubters, but we have funded, we have constructed, and if this last month and a half are any indication, we are operating successfully, matter of fact, much beyond our expectations,” Hausrath said.
Story and Video by Chris Graham