For a once-only investment of $11.5 million, Century says the Victoria could reopen as a multi-purpose venue seating 900, forming part of an entertainment circuit originating in Sydney and bringing contemporary music and comedy to regional NSW.
The Roxy Theatre Action Group’s efforts to block the owner’s proposal to part-demolish and erect a 33 storey office tower cantilevered over the Spanish Mission style theatre were honoured last year by the National Trust.
The Theatre Royal in Lithgow has lain empty for more than a decade while The Yass Liberty is a rare example of a movie palace built in the art deco Ocean liner style. The Liberty is now renovated for sale with several parties interested. It had been previously purchased by Touie and Denise Smith in 2005 to save it from being turned into a supermarket.
Overall, more than 15 dormant theatres in NSW in various states of repair and restoration have been identified with the potential for revival.
Many of those venues are likely to be captured by a new survey by Create NSW, the government’s arts agency, which is taking stock of cultural infrastructure projects in western Sydney and regional NSW.
The agency wants to understand the scope of current and future projects including those like the Victoria Theatre that are shovel-ready with the survey’s deadline extended to January 15.
Century’s executive director Greg Khoury said the Victoria and other dormant theatres could potentially anchor a new commercial touring circuit across the state.
The new venues could stage regional productions of hybrid work from the Australian Ballet and Sydney Symphony Orchestra as well as contemporary music, comedy and festivals.
“Theatres have got vast economic flow-on effects to the areas where they sit and it’s to everyone’s benefit that they are revived and not lost as working theatres,” he said.
A lack of planning incentives and the size of the buildings themselves tended to stifle rescue plans. “Theatre buildings are considered redevelopment sites or, at best, fit for repurposing,” Mr Khoury said. “Usually, they need a great deal of money to bring them up to standard so they have a great deal going against them.”
The Victoria’s revival has the backing of former Liberal arts minister George Souris who says it will take relatively modest money to bring the theatre to life again, a fraction of the cost of building a new theatre.
“There are many shuttered and historic theatres across NSW, rightly preserved by their heritage listing,” Mr Souris said.
“They are embedded in established retail centres with entertainment and night-time economy; businesses waiting to benefit from the economic flow-on effect of a revived theatre.”
Economic modelling prepared for Century in October suggests a $11.5 million capital injection would generate almost five times the return on investment within the theatre’s first three years of operation.
The economic report by Hawkridge Consultants used the same methodology as a 2017 report by the University of Technology Sydney that estimated the economic impact of the 1600-seat Enmore Theatre to be $38 million in the wider Newtown area.
Part of industry-led campaigns to save the Regent and Capitol Theatres in Sydney, Century took over the Enmore as a derelict theatre building in 1986.
Supportive of Century Venues’ project to revive the Victoria Theatre, it has written to the NSW and Federal Governments seeking funding support for the refurbishment of this beautiful heritage theatre.
Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said anyone lucky enough to view the bones of the Victoria Theatre would understand the immense opportunity the project presented to Newcastle and the state.
“We are committed to making a significant and ongoing financial contribution to help realise the full potential of the Victoria Theatre, but will await the response from the NSW and Federal Governments before determining what that contribution ultimately looks like,” she said.
A spokesperson for Arts minister Don Harwin said the government could not comment on the project until it had received a formal proposal.
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Linda Morris is an arts writer at The Sydney Morning Herald