Economic Development

Warren Developer Takes Stage to Restore Robins

WARREN, Ohio – On the west wall of the exterior entryway to the long-idled Robins Theater downtown, in tall white letters, are the words, “I WISH THIS WAS.”

Surrounding those words are various statements expressing wishes for the building. Among them is this one: “I wish this was Robbins [sic] Theater again. … I saw my first theater movie here with my best friend, my brother, here. It was ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’ ”

The wish for the building to again become an entertainment venue is shared by many in the community, including developer Mark Marvin. “It was the theater I went to as a kid,” he recalled.

In fact, the East Market Street property will see renewed life as a theater staging live performances courtesy of Marvin.

His company, Downtown Development Group LLC, last week purchased the Robins Theater building, along with the nearby Duchess Building and part of an adjacent parking lot, for $375,000.

“I thought it worked with what we’re trying to do downtown, which is as I always say, try to bring foot traffic downtown,” he said.

Marvin’s company earlier this year completed its renovation of the Mahoning Building and is in the process of redeveloping other properties downtown.

Marvin has set a timetable of 18 to 24 months to complete the renovation project, a timetable he acknowledges is aggressive, with work set to begin on the building next week, he said.

He puts the cost of the project at $5 million to $7 million. The building, constructed using structural steel and concrete in the early 1920s, is in good shape, requiring mostly electrical and heating/ventilation/cooling upgrades and cosmetic work. Buildings “way back when” were constructed to withstand a lot, and degradation hasn’t been as severe as many might believe.

The theater was ahead of its time when it was built, constructed to change from a venue for staging live theatrical productions to a cinema in less than 24 hours, Marvin said.

“Structurally, the building is sound,” Marvin said. “It’s not going anywhere. That’s why we decided to move forward with the project.” The project “won’t be easy” but it won’t be a complete demolition and rebuild, he added. He is contracting with a local company to restore the theater’s seats, he said.

The project “fits perfectly into the vision of our whole revitalization plans for downtown,” Mayor Doug Franklin said. Entertainment is one of several needed components, along with retail and residential development. “They go hand in hand,” he said.

“This is the linchpin. This will be the anchor to bring people down to Warren,” added Melissa Holmes, project organizer for the Robins Project and program manager for Warren Redevelopment and Planning Corp.

The Robins Project began in 2012 as a grassroots effort to revitalize the Robins Theater space and proponents will share the accumulated research and plans with Marvin. As part of its efforts, organizers partnered with The New School, a university in New York City, to develop financing and redevelopment plans for the space.

“It is our hope that years of community visioning and professional planning will expedite the restoration process, now that a private developer is willing to spend the capital necessary to make the collective vision a reality,” Holmes said.

As an architecture intern, Marvin noted, he worked on a similar project in North Carolina. “To be able to come back now over 30 years later and do something like this on my own – it’s my money and it’s part of the community that I grew up in — it’s really exciting,” he said.

Although the theater closed around 1974, the building retains active office and storefront space. Marvin said. He said those tenants are expected to remain but he plans renovations to that space as well.

Marvin will turn to Sunrise Entertainment to book shows for the revitalized venue. Marvin and Ken Haidaris, president of Sunrise Entertainment, will outline plans for the project at a Feb. 6 news conference, he said.

In addition to booking professional stage productions and performing artists, including comedians, Marvin said he would reach out to local schools and universities to explore their interest in staging shows there, “just to try to bring the community together around what we call the crown jewel here.”

Elsewhere in the downtown, Marvin said the property transfer of Warren’s Scope center on the West Market Street peninsula from the city has been delayed due to a survey. Once that transfer takes place, his company will begin interior demolition to convert it to a winery and restaurant.

While much of the next 19 to 20 months will be focused on Robins Theater, he said if he gets a suitor for the remaining portion of the peninsula property – preferably a grocery store to serve the downtown — he would move forward with that.

Having a qualified developer and investor like Marvin jump-starts other projects, Franklin said. He “has been an engine” himself in terms of properties he has redeveloped and the excitement he has helped generate downtown, the mayor added.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.