The town of Jonesborough has set its sights on another tourist venture as it looks to acquire an old theater building in the downtown area.
On Tuesday, Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, announced in a news release that the state allocated $500,000 for Jonesborough to purchase the Jackson Theatre on Main Street in the 2013-14 budget.
The release said Gov. Bill Haslam had proposed $100,000 in his original budget for the project, but later added another $400,000 to his original proposal in a supplemental amendment offered in the state Senate’s Finance Committee Tuesday morning.
Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe said the town’s plan to purchase the theater has been part of a long-term project it developed after consultants from Destination Development made recommendations to the town on how to boost tourism.
Wolfe said Tuesday he was grateful and excited about the funding coming from the state.
“We have worked in earnest over the last four years to secure some state funding for our work downtown and up until this point, had been unsuccessful,” he said. “Senator Crowe and Lt. Gov. (Ron) Ramsey initiated on our behalf this funding request to restore the Jackson Theatre. We appreciate their efforts and those of the governor for including this request in his supplemental budget amendment. What this can mean for Jonesborough is a year-round draw for movies, musical performances and theatrical productions, not unlike Barter and the Paramount offer in neighboring cities.”
Wolfe said he had even visited Franklin, where the town had performed an $8.5 million restoration on a theater that was built in 1936. He said the theater now holds weekly musical performances, as well as shows movies, and hopes the revamped theater in Jonesborough will one day host similar attractions.
“Our bread and butter is bringing visitors to the town to spend dollars. We are a tourist destination, that’s what we have to do. We have businesses, we have grocery stores, we have a retail base, but the way we’ve really gained notoriety and been successful over the years is by bringing business,” Wolfe said. “With this theater venue, it has appeal ... that is not necessarily geographically limited. My working theory at this point is that we would offer a place for independent films, which ... is not something that exists right now in Washington County.”
He said while showing first-run movies and trying to compete with the major theaters in the area is not what they are trying to do, the theater will also allow the town to expand on already successful programs, such as Music on the Square and the Jonesborough Repertory Theatre.
“When it comes to niche marketing and looking at independent films and theater productions and a good 350-400 seat musical venue, I think we can handle that,” Wolfe said. “We have a highly successful repertory theater ongoing right now with just a little over 100 seats. That alone and the potential to expand that success would justify the purchase of the theater in my mind. We’re not just talking about live stage performances. We’re talking about ... a great music venue that we could take advantage of.”
He said showing independent films and special event films, as well as the possibility of hosting film festivals, is all part of the preliminary plans at this point, but said the town is still in the appraisal process of purchasing the building from its owner, Wesley Wilson.
“We will then negotiate with the owner as to the purchase price, but he has indicated his willingness to sell. From that point ... we will continue to develop potential funding sources to make this project happen,” Wolfe said. “The total price tag that we have at this point, based on (an) architectural estimate, is about $2.3 million. While this very generous gift (from the state) that we are extremely appreciative of gets us started, it by no means finishes the project, but we think we can take it from here and make this thing happen. The sky’s the limit. We’ve got all kinds of resources. Once we nail down that building, we’ve got nowhere to go but up.”
According to “The History of Washington County, Tennessee,” the Jackson Theatre was originally opened as the Blue Mouse Theater in the late 1920s on Main Street. The theater later became the home of Saturday morning “B” westerns, featuring Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy and John Wayne pictures.