Local group hopes to buy historic landmark, transform it into performing arts center

Published 8:36 am Monday, September 21, 2015

Contributed Photo The Bonnie Kate Theater is a landmark in downtown Elizabethton. Plans are in the works to establish a Bonnie Kate Foundation, which could preserve the building and transform it into a performing arts center.

Contributed Photo
The Bonnie Kate Theater is a landmark in downtown Elizabethton. Plans are in the works to establish a Bonnie Kate Foundation, which could preserve the building and transform it into a performing arts center.

A group that includes local and state officials as well as other interested parties has formed in an effort to create a nonprofit foundation that would buy and renovate the old Bonnie Kate Theatre building. The intent is to convert the Elizabethton landmark into a performing arts center.
“There are many possibilities for that building, but the best is a performing arts center,” said Floyd Storie, who has been instrumental in getting the group together.
The building, formerly owned by Brian and Cindy Higgs, was placed in foreclosure this summer. It reverted back to Citizens Bank when an auction earlier this month failed to produce a buyer.
The Higgses were owners and operator of the Bonnie Kate Cafe and had an ice cream shop in one side of the building, which was later replaced by a bar. Once they stopped operating the theater, they tried to replace it with a dinner theater and live music. The latest venture included a nonprofit to help youth learn the art of cooking.
Last week, Floyd Storie Roofing was making repairs to the Bonnie Kate’s roof. “We are making these repairs at the authorization of the bank,” Storie said.
There have been issues with the roof for some time, and at one point the former owner had requested financial help from the community to replace the roof.
Storie said his crew was replacing the front portion of the roof and patching the back part of the building. “The rain has leaked all the way through the rafters and sheathing on the front part,” he said. “These repairs are only temporary until we get a foundation in place and get some money to purchase the building.”
If the foundation buys the building, seating would need to be replaced and other improvements made, group member John Huber said.
The group is working with Patrick McIntyre, director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, and Gray Stothart, First District Historic Preservation Planner, as well as City Planner Jon Hartman in an effort to get the site placed on the The East Tennessee Preservation Trust’s Ten in Tennessee Endangered Properties.
“If we can accomplish that, then we perhaps can qualify for some state funds to help with the purchase of the building and renovation,” Huber said.
Members of the group entrusted with the task of selecting and organizing a Bonnie Kate Foundation in addition to Storie and Huber include John Holsclaw, State Sen. Ron Ramsey, County Mayor Leon Humphrey, former State Senator Bob Burleson, Pam Huber, City Planner Jon Hartman, City Manager Jerome Kitchens, State Rep. Timothy Hill, State Senator Rusty Crowe, Junior Stanley, Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander, Richard Tetrick, Sean Huber, Ken Rea of the First Tennessee Development District, Patrick McIntyre, Gray Stothart, Trudy Hughes and Chamber Director Tonya Stevens.
“This is a committee to organize a Bonnie Kate Foundation for the purchase and renovation of the building,” said Huber. “This is just to secure the building and get it ready for a venue for public performances. Currently, the bank has control of the building.
“We are talking big bucks. It will take approximately $132,000 to purchase the building from the bank, in addition to other improvements,” Huber said.
“New lighting and a better sound system will have to be installed as well as a new stage. We probably are talking about $1 million in renovation costs,” Huber said.
In addition to grants and donations, the foundation will be entrusted with fundraising.
“It is one of the most historical buildings in town and I think it is worth saving. Most everyone living in Carter County, who is 35 years or older, has a memory of the building, of attending the movies there, and many remember when the Barrel of Fun was performed at the theater on Saturday mornings back in the 1940s and 1950s,” Storie said.
Should the building be selected for the Endangered Properties, the committee will receive some much needed help from the East Tennessee Preservation Alliance. Once selected, preservation strategies are developed for each site on the list and can include working with current property owners, government officials, citizens and the new owners to preserve the building’s heritage, which dates back to 1926.
“As a performing arts center, the Bonnie Kate has all kinds of entertainment possibilities,” Huber said. More specifically, he mentioned concerts, even plays by Barter Theatre, as well as college and high school productions.
“You could say we have a little mountain to climb before we get there,” Huber said. “But you always have that first step to take.”
Storie added that a lot of legalities are involved. “Not only is the bank involved, so is the FHA,” he said.
The committee has met once and discussed several ideas, and will be meeting again in the near future. “Our goal at this point is to seek out some well-qualified people, who are familiar with trusts, historic preservation, and securing grants to serve as members of the foundation,” Storie said.

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