Johnson City Press: Jonesborough eyeing late 2020 for Jackson Theatre completion

Jonesborough eyeing late 2020 for Jackson Theatre completion

Jonathan Roberts • Jun 25, 2019 at 8:00 PM

What started as a bold idea more than seven years ago by then-Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe is inching closer to reality — a reality that may not be more important to anyone than it is to Jonesborough Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Jennifer Ross-Bernhardt.

When the town bought the Jackson Theatre in 2014, Wolfe told the Press it’s the “perfect facility to complement so many of the things we’re already doing.” Fast-forward to 2019, and current Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest views the theater as an “asset” that “will undoubtedly bring more visitors to our town.”

That’s music to Ross-Bernhardt’s ears.

“I’m thankful just to see things are underway, we’ve been talking about it for a long time and they’re making great progress,” she said. “It’s very exciting.”

A long time might be an understatement.

Renovations were slated to begin in 2017, but crews have been faced with frequent delays. In early 2018, work on the theater was delayed while crews awaited a shipment of steel. Both Vest and Town Administrator Bob Browning are hopeful the renovations, which were initially supposed to be finished by late 2018, will be completed by 2020.

“Restoration of historic structures often uncovers hidden challenges that can create delays, but I’m not sure 2018 was ever a viable date,” Vest said. “I think, best-case scenario is we get open late 2020 but I’ll be pleased if it’s first half of 2021.”

“We’re shooting for the end of 2020 and hope to be finished by then,” Browning said.

When it opens isn’t as important to Ross-Bernhardt, whose excitement isn’t likely to wane during the process.

“Our theater seats 140 at capacity, the Jackson will seat around 325, so right off the bat we won’t have to run so many weekends,” she said. “We can also do some shows we’ve never been able to do in our space, like “Peter Pan” or “Mary Poppins” where you have to fly somebody.”

Ross-Bernhardt said the renovation is something that “always takes a lot longer than you think” to complete, but she understands the difficulties in renovating an old building.

“With an old building like that, you’re always going to run into things you never anticipated or could’ve foreseen.” she said. “It’s just one of those things, you just kind of have to go with the flow,” she continued.

The initial plan called for a simple restoration, but after clearing out the inside of the Jackson, crews realized the building wouldn’t be large enough to meet fire code and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant. That forced the town to buy the building next door, named the Stage Door. The Stage Door will function as the new lobby for the JRT and Jackson.

All three buildings will be decorated in a 1940s art deco style that harkens back to when the Jackson Theatre was first named in the 1940s, after operating as the Blue Mouse Theatre in the two decades prior.

“Our town takes preservation of our history and its historic structures as our forever mission,” Vest said. “The Jackson Theatre is another example of our town fulfilling that mission while we leverage its economic benefits.”

Economically, Vest believes the “addition of a first-class theater” can only help the town’s economy, and will, by default, help other area businesses, which will “produce more taxable revenues.”

A large portion of the funding for the project has come from donations and grants, about $1.84 million worth to assist with renovations and purchase costs for the Jackson and the Stage Door, according to Browning.

Initial projections estimated renovation and construction costs would total roughly $3 million, something Browning says is still accurate, though he says costs could get as high as $3.5 million.

“We don’t have anything that’s indicated that it’s going to be (more than $3 million),” Browning said, noting that the project isn’t being done in a typical, one-contractor-for-all fashion, but rather by using a conglomerate of contractors and inmate work crews.

Vest also said the estimate was “still viable,” but says the restoration costs can be fluid. Once complete, he says the theater will be “an asset with instant equity.”

For Ross-Bernhardt, the new building will be more than just an asset, it’ll be the realization of a nearly decade-long dream.

“These are dreams that are coming true,” Ross Bernhardt said. “It is a reality, and it’s going to happen.”

Johnson City Press Videos