RIVERBANK -- In less than a year, the Del Rio Theater has gone from "Bye Bye Birdie" to -- possibly -- bye-bye building.
In August, the downtown theater staged a production of the rock 'n' roll musical. On Tuesday, the city's Redevelopment Agency votes on whether to demolish the Del Rio. If approved, the demolition will mean the end of a landmark the city once hoped to transform into the hub of a revitalized downtown.
The Redevelopment Agency, whose members are the City Council, bought the 1940s-era building for $1.7 million in 2007. City officials had visions of renovating the theater, at Third and Atchison streets, into a venue for local arts organizations. The idea was to bring people -- and dollars -- downtown.
The city got more than it bargained for with the purchase. Officials knew the building would need work, but a recent structural study revealed big problems: cracked roof trusses, weak load-bearing posts inside walls, mold, mildew, dry rot and significant damage to wood framing. Engineers say the building is unsafe to occupy. The repairs would cost about $1 million.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
Some have wondered if the city did enough homework before buying the Del Rio. In December, then-Councilman David I. White asked why its safety wasn't thoroughly investigated before the purchase. Economic Development Director Tim Ogden said a 2006 structural analysis found the building needed several repairs and upgrades, but was "in fair overall condition." The study was typical of what most cities do when they buy property, he added.
City staff now recommends demolishing the building and replacing it with an inexpensive aluminum frame building. The city also could do a partial demolition, tearing down the theater's auditorium and leaving other parts intact. But such a project likely would cost more than a full demolition, Ogden said.
"It would just be a long, big headache, and we wouldn't be any further along in the vision that the community put together for us," he said.
Renovating older theaters is a popular project for cities hoping to revitalize their downtowns, said Tom Hart, deputy director of California Redevelopment Association. In many cases, the restored theaters breathe new life into languishing downtowns, he said. Raising enough money for a renovation usually requires help from a local charity or nonprofit group.
The economy plays a key role too, Hart said.
Property values sink revenue
Redevelopment agencies receive income when assessed property values in the redevelopment area increase. When assessed property values in Riverbank's redevelopment area plunged last year, so did the agency's revenues.
"Who would have known two years ago when they purchased (the theater) that property values would have gone down so much," Hart said.
Tearing down the Del Rio and replacing it with an aluminum frame structure would cost about $450,000. The new building could be ready for use by arts groups by the end of the summer, Ogden said.
He's received no complaints about the possible destruction of the landmark, Ogden said. The building is 62 years old but has little of the charm that some older movie houses have, he said.
Joey Huestis, artistic director of visual and performing arts group Rio Arts, said the loss of the building would be a blow to Riverbank's arts groups. But she noted that staging shows at the Del Rio was difficult. Performers had to haul in their own lighting and sound systems, and the toilets flushed sporadically.
"There were no amenities," Huestis said. "It was like bringing everything into a big barn. But we loved working there because it was in our town."
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Riverbank's Redevelopment Agency votes on whether to demolish the Del Rio Theater on Third and Atchison streets.
WHEN: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: Riverbank Community Center, 3600 Santa Fe St.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378.