Wheeling’s Capitol Theatre celebrates being debt free

DEBT FREE — Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, holds a copy of the Capitol Theatre mortgage document while Slim Lehart lights it to celebrate the loan payment. -- Mike Jones

WHEELING — Local stakeholders gathered outside the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday evening to burn a very symbolic piece of paper.

The Wheeling-Ohio County Convention and Visitors Bureau held a mortgage burning ceremony after recently paying off the $1.9 million loan it received in 2009 to purchase the theater.

Now, 10 years later, the Capitol Theatre is debt free, and members of Wheeling-area organizations involved in the historic building’s progress celebrated the achievement at the event.

“This means a lot,” said Frank O’Brien, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Capitol Theater has been a part of our past, it’s been a part of our present and now, forever, it will be a part of our local community future because it’s owned by us.”

Attendees socialized in the alley adjacent to the theater, ate a buffet dinner inside the building and finally convened outside for the burning of the theater’s loan document.

“It’s an incredible day,” O’Brien said. “That’s why we invited all the people involved in making this happen.”

O’Brien read a 10-year-old letter from the bank that urged them to take good care of the document. He said the one he was holding in his hands Wednesday evening for the ceremony was “obviously” a copy, but he raised the paperwork high in the air as Wheeling musical legend Slim Lehart lit the document to commence the celebration.

Lehart, known as the Wheeling Cat, was one of the most prevalent opening acts for the Jamboree. He and his band, The Wheeling Express, traveled the country and Canada telling the story of Wheeling’s rich musical history, he said.

“I thought it was a great honor because I really promoted the theater and the Jamboree,” Lehart said of being invited to the set he document ablaze.

The theater has come a long way since it closed in 2006 due to numerous safety violations, O’Brien said.

“Some were insignificant like a burnt-out exit light, and then others were very serious: no smoke detectors, no fire suppression system, no adequate fire escape for egress,” O’Brien said. “Those were major, major upgrades that had to be done.”

To save the theater, members of local government, the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce, the Visitors Bureau, Oglebay and other organizations gathered in 2006 to discuss options, O’Brien said. Ultimately, the bureau decided it could afford to buy the theater.

O’Brien worked with Hydie Friend, former Wheeling Heritage director, and Denny Magruder, executive director of the Greater Wheeling Sports and Entertainment Authority, to secure the $1.9 million loan from Community Bank and purchase the theater for $617,000.

The leftover money went toward safety upgrades.

In September 2009, the theater reopened, and since then it has received more than $5.4 million in donations from the private sector, state and federal grants and money through the Visitors Bureau to improve the facility, O’Brien said.

Renovations included repairing the ballroom roof, adding new seats and making the theater Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

“We think we’re reached a point where all the improvements won’t have to be repeated for another 20 or 30 years,” he said. “That was important to us.”

O’Brien said his and others’ efforts to save the theater have improved downtown Wheeling. More than 500,000 people have attended shows at the theater since it reopened, resulting in an estimated $30 million in spending in the city, he said.

“We thought that the Capitol Theatre was too important to lose. We also thought that it would be a great home for the Wheeling Symphony which had been here for 80 years. We also thought that it would be a great venue for entertainment and arts. And we thought that if we did it right, it would be a positive impact on the city,” O’Brien said.

“We think that the investment in the theater and creating a little bit of buzz translated into additional renovations at other buildings,” he continued. “We think that it was a component in the drive to make Main Street a better place.”