AUBURN — Walking into the Auburn Schine Theater two years ago, most developers would have been daunted by what they saw: ruptured ceilings, plaster debris, bird droppings.
Not Bryan Bowers.
Bowers is founder and president of Asbestos & Environmental Consulting Corporation and Bowers Development, both of East Syracuse. And, as of December, the developer is the new owner of the Schine. Through Schines Theater LLC, Bowers purchased the historic building from its owner of 20 years, the Cayuga County Arts Council, for $15,000.
Now, Bowers and his companies are planning how to succeed where others have not and restore the Schine to its 1938 art deco glory.
Monday, in his first interview with The Citizen, Bowers said the restoration is stalled until the city of Auburn receives paperwork for a $1 million Restore NY grant from Empire State Development. The city applied for the grant on the project's behalf, and the award was announced in March 2018. The city hopes to receive that paperwork within the next few weeks, Bowers said.
Bowers said the city has been "absolutely tremendous" in its support of the Schine's restoration. That support has included allocating $800,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds for the removal of the theater's asbestos and other hazardous materials in 2018. Those funds also covered the installation of a new roof and the acquisition of materials to build a new stage, Bowers said.
The effort to restore the Auburn Schine Theater may have more momentum behind it now than ev…
Meanwhile, the Schine's restoration has also been awarded $1.2 million through the state's Regional Economic Development Council, and Bowers plans to apply for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement for the property. The remainder of the project's cost, which Bowers places at $6 million, will be covered by historic tax credits and both private and bank financing, he said.
But because of the Restore NY grant delay, Bowers continued, the fall 2019 completion date he once projected has been pushed back about a year. When the paperwork arrives, the next phase of work on the Schine will include restoring the marquee, entrance and facade, as well as installing heating, ventilation and air conditioning and mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems.
"You never want to invest a lot of time and money restoring your building until your building's conditioned," he said. "Otherwise, a lot of the problems you had with mold and moisture will return."
Bowers believes the experience his companies have with restoring buildings — and securing grant funding to do so — positions them to finish the Schine project after 20 years of effort.
The developer's recent resume includes the Security Building on Bleecker Street in Utica and a 7.5-acre industrial site on the Erie Canal in Canastota. In both cases, Bowers said, local development agencies reached out to him about restoring the properties, which required remediation of asbestos in the former and both PCB and petroleum in the latter. But he took on the projects, and within months of beginning work, each site was restored, reopened and occupied by new tenants: a law firm in Utica, and Dutchland Plastics and CNY Hemp Processing in Canastota.
Bowers doesn't have experience restoring a historic theater, he continued. But another current project, the New Century Club in Utica, includes a large auditorium area built in the late 1800s.
His experience is the reason Bowers wasn't daunted by the Schine when the Cayuga Economic Development Agency approached him two years ago about restoring it, he said.
Twenty years ago in January, the Cayuga County Arts Council purchased the Auburn Schine Thea…
"You just can't find buildings like this anymore," he said. "You can't create buildings like this anymore."
Bowers is now finalizing the Schine's restoration plan in communication with the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Because of previous grant money the state has awarded the project, the office must approve any changes to the building so as not to compromise its historic character. The office also had to approve the theater's sale to Bowers.
"They love this project and are very supportive," he said of the office. "And obviously they look forward to its restoration and completion."
There have been no recent changes to the restoration plan, Bowers said: It still includes tiers of seating with loose tables and chairs on the auditorium floor, and fixed seating in the balcony. The area under the balcony will be leveled off to become a bar and concession space, and separated from the rest of the auditorium by a glass wall. And the stage will be extended over the orchestra pit.
Bowers is also waiting until the project is closer to completion before he begins planning the Schine's future. The movie palace John Eberson designed sat 1,700, but almost a century later, such a venue wouldn't be viable in a city of 27,000, Bowers said. That's why the restoration plan will permit a wide range of uses, from movies and live music to weddings and corporate events. Bowers added that he's been contacted by five to 10 entities interested in being part of the Schine's future, from its concession sales to its overall operations.
Before that can happen, though, Bowers must continue to navigate the constellation of logistical and financial challenges that have kept the Schine from being restored for 20 years.
"With all these projects, it only takes two things," he said. "Imagination and money."