Rainey Williams Jr. is ready to present what he considers to be a strong, proven case for demolition of downtown's Stage Center. It is an argument he believes will prevail against a city planning staff report suggesting it is too architecturally significant to be destroyed.
The Downtown Design Review Committee will hear an application Thursday by Williams and decide whether the abandoned, flood-damaged theater can be razed to make way for a new OGE Energy Corp. headquarters.
Williams, president of Kestrel Investments, bought the property at 400 W Sheridan Ave. in July from the Kirkpatrick Center Affiliated Fund, of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, for $4.275 million.
And despite a nonbinding recommendation by city planners that the demolition application be rejected, Williams is not ready to contemplate what might happen if the theater remains in place.
“We're just not even focused on that,” Williams said Tuesday. “We're continuing to make our case for what we have in mind. Numerous studies were conducted and they identified costs in excess of $10 million to rehabilitate the structure in its current configuration.”
That “current configuration,” Williams added, doesn't meet the needs of various nonprofits and performing arts groups. He cites consultants' estimates showing that the cost to create a truly viable theater would grow up to another $20 million.
Preservationists and architects argue the theater is historically significant and could attract a savior in years to come if given a chance similar to the award-winning rehabilitation of the Skirvin hotel in 2006.
That landmark stood empty for 18 years, and like Stage Center, was extensively damaged and required a complete gutting and rebuilding.
“They're completely different,” Williams responded. “The Skirvin was purchased with city money, and its renovation was supported with millions of dollars of public funds, which allowed it to become a viable hotel. This, on the other hand, would have to become a performing arts or museum, which would always need funds to be supported.”
Bob Ross, president of the Inasmuch Foundation, is among those who fielded funding requests from various groups seeking to save Stage Center when the Oklahoma City Community Foundation advertised for interested buyers.
The Inasmuch Foundation, Ross estimates, has issued more than $10 million in grants over the years for historic preservation projects. But he sees nothing that makes Stage Center a historic landmark.
Ross, who is also a board member of the John W. Rex Elementary School being built just west of the abandoned theater, is among those arguing it can't be saved.
“Even before the flooding, the building was obsolete,” Ross said. “People called me with ideas to save it. Most of the ideas, while intriguing, were completely unrealistic financially. You have a piece of property worth a couple million dollars. And then you have at least a $10 million renovation. A nonprofit can't afford to work with that.”
Ross said he's thrilled at the idea of OGE Energy Corp. moving its headquarters across from the school, and envisions a generous supply of mentors and volunteers ready to work with students.
He's not so excited about the prospect of a neglected, abandoned Stage Center remaining indefinitely across from the school.
“It (Stage Center) was built dysfunctional from the beginning,” Ross said. “Now it's obsolete. How do you deal with a building like that?”
Oklahoma City police records, meanwhile, show the property was a problem for authorities even before it closed in 2010, with a dead body found on the premises just months before the flooding.
Since 2010, police have responded to burglaries, thefts, disturbances and mental health calls at the closed theater.
“I recently drove down the ramp to the garage that caused all the flooding,” Ross said. “There are people living down there … there are people habitating in nooks and crannies. That's not what we want for downtown Oklahoma City or as a neighbor for the school or across from Devon. It's just not a good situation.”