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The Varsity Theatre might be getting renovated soon ... or not

varsity theatre

The Varsity Theatre is located on East Franklin Street. The historic movie theater has been a landmark of Chapel Hill for decades and now there is possibility that it will operate as a public performing arts space.

Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theatre Task Force convened Monday for their final report, recommending Chapel Hill not to purchase and renovate the Varsity into a community arts center due to physical and financial obstacles. 

Chapel Hill Town Council member Rachel Schaevitz said the task force, a group of Town staff and local downtown business owners, was established last October amid concerns the Varsity building would be sold for a non-arts related purpose. She said those fears have now subsided.

“It was that (the Varsity) and the other two businesses would be displaced and it might be replaced with something completely unrelated to the performing arts,” she said. “That’s where this started and then throughout the process we discovered a lot more — such as that the current owner is not in a rush to sell it, and even when he does sell it, he wants to see it retained as a performing arts venue.”

In October, the Town Council charged the task force with calculating acquisition cost estimates, programming ideas and the economic impact of a performing arts venue.

“Ultimately, what Council was looking at is how can we enhance the vitality of downtown, how can we attract more, because we want to then support the other businesses there, and that’s why we are looking at the Varsity Theatre,” said Jim Huegerich, a senior ombuds for the Town.

The task force found the projected cost of purchasing and renovating the Varsity Theatre, ranging from $3.5 to $5.5 million in total, was too expensive to justify proceeding with the project.

“It is clear that the Varsity is not the appropriate location for a performing arts center as identified by this task force,” the final recommendation said. “However, there are other possible spaces for such a venue in downtown Chapel Hill and the task force recommends that the council and Town staff continue to engage and explore on this issue.”

Mandey Brown, owner of Zog’s Art Bar and task force member, said she was concerned about the precedent being set by the Town discussing purchasing a business not currently for sale with little input from the Varsity’s owner.

“That’s like someone walking into my restaurant and saying ‘You know what, Mandey, we really want to put an addendum to the Lemur Center in here, so we’ll see you,’” she said.

Shaevitz said Brown’s concerns about setting precedent were valid and well-heard, and that they factored into Monday’s discussion being, in all likelihood, the final task force meeting.

“Part of the rationale for not extending this task force longer but wrapping up where we are now is this idea that the circumstances that have led to require this have changed so dramatically that even our charge is a little bit outdated in many ways,” she said. “Can we just collect what we can and submit it and call it and not be so particularly focused on this business?”

Council member Michael Parker said he thinks the Town should look into constructing a new art space downtown, or fill a vacancy, in order to stimulate downtown business.

“I would assume that if something were created from scratch, whether it’s a building that doesn’t exist or a building that’s empty, clearly the economic impact would have to be larger,” he said.

The Varsity Task Force will present its findings to the Chapel Hill Town Council in the near future.


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