City leaders struggle to save The Haven

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Like an aging entertainer, the grand structure in downtownBrookhaven lit up faces with its performances and the night skywith its bright neon but The Haven has come to feel the effects ofits decades in providing pleasant diversions.

Use and an extended period of dormancy have stolen a step on thecity’s first lady of film and stage performances, but members ofthe Brookhaven Little Theatre hope to add new life through a grantfrom the state Department of Archives and History.

“It’s a very competitive grant,” said Sha Walker, BLT president.”There are a number of communities trying for this. We think wehave a lot of community support, but it is a big project. It’s abig building.”

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The grant would allow BLT, which owns The Haven, to begin thefirst phase of its renovation of the theatre. BLT would make a$50,000 match to secure $250,000 in funding for the project, whichwould be used to replace a leaking roof and marquee and renovatethe front of the building.

“We’ve done many inside projects and roof repairs in the past,”Walker said. “But the current roof is about 30 years old and needsto be replaced.”

The architect for the project recently released concept drawingsof The Haven after the renovations.

“It is a first rendering from our architect. That’s his take onwhat the front of the building will look like,” Walker said.

The drawings include restoring the neon marquee that attractedthousands to The Haven each week and lit up the downtown in thedecades between 1930 and 1980, he said.

The historic theatre operated as early as 1939, Walker said, andwas built to its present specifications in 1950. However, it closedin 1977 and lay dormant until purchased by BLT in 1983. It hassince become the home of BLT, and hosts at least three liveperformances each year as well as providing a venue for many othercommunity events.

However, efforts to secure the grant stumbled last week when thestate questioned some law changes sought by the city that wereprompted by concerns that the ordinance may prove toocumbersome.

In order to qualify for the grant, Brookhaven must agree tobecome a Certified Local Government Community. The preservationordinance is the first step in the process that will also includecreation of a historic preservation commission, designation of ahistoric preservation district and re-evaluation of city activitiesevery four years.

Mayor Bob Massengill Tuesday presented a revised proposal thatincluded changes for abolishment of the preservation commission orremoval of its members, provisions for property owners to “opt out”of historic districts, and regulations for commissionexpenditures.

“They want to protect the interests of Brookhaven, and I commendthem for that,” Walker said. “They are looking for a fine balancebetween historic preservation and local private property rights.They are working hard, I believe, to reach an agreement. I’mconfident they will.”

A spokesman for the Department of Archives and History will meetwith aldermen this week in an effort to address those issues.Walker said he will not attend the meeting because he does not feelhe would be needed.

“My faith and trust is in that board,” he said.

An approval of the city ordinance is necessary for The Haven toqualify for the grant, Walker said, but does not guarantee thetheatre would receive it.