Historic Olympia Theater in Palmetto gets renovated for private use

jtate@bradenton.comNovember 2, 2013 

PALMETTO -- The historic Olympia Theater, built in 1916, is getting a face lift thanks to new owner and jazz musician Alexander Berne, who's working with the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency to turn it into a home, recording studio and art gallery.

Jeff Burton, CRA director, said the owner will use a Downtown Commercial Core Incentive from the agency to construct the home. The incentive is given for land use, demolition work, design and redevelopment of a property.

"If someone comes in and they want to build a building then we'll be a partner for that," said Burton. "We pay

no money out until the taxable value has increased."

According to the Manatee County property appraiser, Berne bought the property valued at $395,000 from Hester Family Investments LLC.

The CRA will contribute $119,825 over a spread of five years for the project. Burton said the new owner has provided extra work to strengthen the exterior walls of the structure. He said the CRA board may consider an amendment near the end of construction to increase the incentives to reward the preservation of this historic building.

"The theater will cost somewhere between $1 million and $2 million," said Burton about the cost of renovations.

He said the theater, originally called the Palmetto Theater, is the oldest building used as a movie theater on Florida's west coast and even predates the Tampa Theatre by 10 years. After decades of showing films, the theater shut down in 1956. It reopened in 2009 operating as Olympia Performing Arts Center when Joel Jarvis, a longtime Palmetto resident and retired general contractor, poured more than $1 million worth of renovations into the building to host shows for and by the community.

Jerry Upshaw, from the Lakewood Ranch-based general contractor Stellar Development, said while tearing apart some of the building they found an historic surprise. Instead of rebar, the superintendent found John Deere wagon axles in the high beams, some with wood still attached to them.

"This was built during WWI. They couldn't get any steel, so they used wagon axles," said Upshaw.

He said most of the building will need to be rebuilt, but will keep its historical look. Upshaw said that is part of the contract the city has for the building to ensure it is uniform with the area's historic theme. He said the building will keep the look of the Historic Olympia Theater.

Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said preserving this historical landmark was important to the community.

"We've been terribly concerned for many years about the longevity of that building," said Bryant.

She said many people in the community saw the construction and mistook it for demolition of the theater.

Bryant is pleased a musician of Berne's caliber wants to come to Palmetto.

"He's a very interesting young man," she said. "Anywhere he determines to make his home and make an investment, he's going to have some positive synergy around that."

Berne, who declined to speak with the media, is a New York native and a composer, visual artist and saxophonist. He's traveled the world performing and taught at the Stanford University Jazz workshop. Berne has stepped in to renovate the historic 48,000-square-foot building.

"You have a building, a couple of decades earlier that you couldn't give it away, now you have somebody who is coming and investing heavily," said Burton.

Business owners had mixed feelings about the renovations. Although they were pleased the old building is not being demolished, a few hoped it would be for public use to add to the possible economic impact.

"I was hoping they were going to turn it into an old theater," said Amy Lozano, owner of Palmetto Pool Care. Her business has been up the street from the theater for more than 20 years.

"It's an old building that has history. It would be better if the use was for the public," said Lozano. "Glad to see that it wasn't going to be torn down."

Hair stylist Betty Brooks had similar sentiments.

"I'm happy to hear it was restored," said Brooks, a Palmetto native. "It's better to have something there than nothing, instead of letting it deteriorate."

Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter at Janey_Tate.

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