$200,000 just the beginning for Huntridge Theater

Backers of an effort to revive the historic Huntridge Theater in downtown Las Vegas on Thursday celebrated raising more than $200,000 for the cause.

Now comes the hard part.

They’ve got until the end of the year to close a $3.9 million deal to buy the building that’s a cultural symbol to generations of lifelong residents.

And once that’s done they’re looking at up to $10 million in renovation costs for the structure, which opened as a theater nearly seven decades ago.

If anyone involved is daunted by the high costs or the prospect of surviving as a live music venue in one of the world’s most competitive entertainment destinations it wasn’t showing during the celebration at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada, just a few blocks from the historic venue.

“I think the time now is better than ever,” said Joey Vanas, operator of downtown’s monthly First Friday festivals and partner in Huntridge Revival LLC. “We asked the community if they were interested and the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.”

Vanas, Michael Cornthwaite, owner of the Beat Coffeehouse and Downtown Cocktail Room, and Rehan Choudhry, creator of the Life is Beautiful festival, are the primary backers of the proposal.

But in recent weeks they’ve raised $207,355 in online donations from fans and neighbors of the Huntridge and pledges of $500,000 in professional services from PENTA Building Group and several other firms.

The money is slated to help with surveys, testing and other preparation needed to secure the theater, which lately has been operated as a discount furniture store, and restore it to its former glory.

“That’s what we have, we are raising all the rest,” said Cornthwaite, who along with Vanas addressed the audience of about 100 people at the event. “We are exploring every possible option to reach that goal.”

Once achieved, the Huntridge Revival group envisions a live music venue that can accommodate an audience of 1,600 people, an arthouse theater with seating for about 250 to 300 and a restaurant that could seat about 100.

They also expect to operate the venue as a business, which means it would need to cover the cost of any debt incurred, operations and profit.

“It has to be profitable and it will be that part doesn’t scare me so much,” Vanas said.

In addition to music acts the group envisions the venue as a community asset that could host high school plays and other events.

But it has been years since the Huntridge operated as a venue that attracted popular acts such as Smashing Pumpkins, Beck and Greenday.

If the Huntridge Revival group succeeds, they’ll be jumping into a live music market that’s teeming with new competition from splashy venues like the Cosmopolitan hotel-casino and numerous, massive nightclubs on the Strip.

“When we were doing shows at the Huntridge in the ‘90s we didn’t have anywhere near the competition for live entertainment we have now,” said Danny Zelisko, a concert promoter since 1974 who said he’s booked as many as 400 events in Las Vegas.

Zelisko said in addition to becoming more savvy about drawing in acts of all sizes, resorts have raised expectations among customers as well.

“They eye candy is popping all over the place, you have gambling, you have food. People have become used to all those creature comforts,” Zelisko said.

He said he would welcome the return of the venue, especially if it meant a platform for up-and-coming acts that wouldn’t otherwise have a good outlet on the local scene. But he also said the high cost to acquire and renovate the property could make it difficult to find a return on the investment.

“Somebody would really have to be rich and a gracious person and love music and the arts to dump $10 million on that,” he said.

Backers, however, are optimistic they can tap into a successful formula. The fact they raised so much money from friends and neighbors and have attracted successful local companies to donate services provides a confidence boost.

So does past success in reviving other areas in downtown Las Vegas. Under Vanas, First Friday has grown from a nearly defunct entity to an event that has attracted tens of thousands of people downtown.

Cornthwaite has opened two successful businesses near an area of Fremont Street that was once known primarily as a haven for drug dealing, homelessness and prostitution.

And Choudhry’s pending festival is among the most anticipated events downtown.

“We just know it needs to happen and it is the right thing and just feel it and believe it,” Vanas said. “You get enough people believing in the same thing and so it shall be.”

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0285 .

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