The Power of the Local Theater

Among the strongest drivers of vitality and vibrance within cities and towns is youth presence: college students at festivals like Boston Calling, or high schoolers flocking to a new Mexican place. However, young people who are excited to get out and explore the communities which surround them are strikingly (and tragically) missing from areas which need them most. As America’s rural and suburban “main streets” continue to deteriorate and attractions become increasingly sprawled, more and more young people are abandoning town centers for other meet-up spots. As a result, the decay of historic towns such as North Conway, New Hampshire worsen without the diversity and vitality that youth bring. Often underfunded and poorly managed, local institutions with the power to encourage youth to play a role in urban vitality such as the North Conway Twin Theatre, fall into ruin.

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The closed Twin Theatre in January 2017

Other towns have checked this cycle, with local leaders and groups rallying to save institutions which have long played a role in nurturing a livable street environment. Like in North Conway, the Capawock and Island theaters of Martha’s Vineyard (in the towns of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs) went out of business in 2012- then decrepit eyesores. However in 2015, a local group arose to solicit donations in order to completely renovate and reopen the theaters. The results of the process are impressive- modern, well-maintained, air-conditioned theaters with a wide selection of snacks and drinks at a reasonable ticket price. Since the re-openings, one who journeys to the Capawock Theater on Main Street in Vineyard Haven any weekend (or any night throughout the summer), will find lines stretching down the street. The theater, and its surroundings, are often abuzz with the excitement and enthusiasm of the many groups of friends, families, and couples waiting for entry into the theater.

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The Capawock Theatre after reopening in 2015

The effects of this new enthusiasm surrounding Vineyard Haven’s Main Street stretch from increased perceived safety (see ‘Eyes on the Street’), to a boost in foot traffic which benefits other Main Street retail, to increased property values of nearby apartments. All of these benefits contribute to only more vitality, kick-starting a cycle of true “urban renewal”. Other towns, such as Conway, New Hampshire, (10 minutes south of North Conway) are following in the footsteps of the group on Martha’s Vineyard. Conway’s historic Majestic Theatre is slated to be renovated and reopen to the public after going out of business and being declared unsafe. With the local businesses surrounding the Majestic struggling, the theater should provide a much-needed boost to the vitality (and as a result, economic stability) of Conway’s Main Street.

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The Majestic Theatre in Conway is surrounded by local cafes and shops which have a lot to gain from increased foot traffic on the street

If rural towns such as North Conway wish to expand their hours of activity from around nine (mainly gift shops and general stores) to a broader 12-15 hours- bringing increased economic opportunity and livability- leaders must look to Martha’s Vineyard and establish a committees to reopen institutions such as the Twin Theatre. The young people who will inevitably come along with a well-run public amenities like theaters will be well worth the investment.

Image credit americantowns.com and Google Street View

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