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Public gets first look at new BLT sign

Approximately 500 people crowded onto West Cherokee StreetSaturday night to witness the official rebirth of the Haven theaterat the 2008 Brookhaven Little Theatre membership party, and – forthose who remember – the glowing neon took them back to a differenttime.

“It looks just like it did in those days,” said Brookhaven’sMark C. Smith, watching the restored Haven sign come to bright lifefor the first time in decades. “The only thing I don’t see now isJohn Wayne and Tarzan on the marquee. Those were the good ‘oledays.”

These are the new days.

Save the Haven Committee Chairwoman JoAnna Sproles saidcommunity interest in efforts to restore the theater to itsoriginal glory is higher than ever before, a theory evidenced bythe fact that more than 300 play season tickets were sold at andleading up to the party.

“This place means something to people, and we want everyone toknow that the restoration – from the front door to the back door -is for the community,” she said. “We want them to feel welcomehere. We want people to keep us in mind, come to our plays, enjoyour programs and continue to support us.”

Sproles said BLT personnel would most likely take some time offand enjoy the fruits of the labor, but more work is on the horizon.Saturday night’s celebration of the restored sign and façadeofficially brings Phase Two of the Haven’s multi-year, $1 millionrestoration plan to a close, and Phase Three – approximately$80,000 worth of interior restorations – are scheduled to begin inearly 2009.

The success of the previous renovations may have well laid thegroundwork for Phase Three and future phases. Although BLT expendedits funds in the previous two phases of restoration and the comingphases could cost as much as $700,000, helpful eyes were on handSaturday night, taking stock of BLT’s success thus far.

Mississippi Department of Archives and History GrantsCoordinator Mingo Tingle said the Haven is “by far” one of the bestprojects he has seen, adding that he has seen a lot. He said therest of the department would no doubt keep the project in mind.

“When you have a project that is this organized, it helps us -it brings good light back to MDAH,” Tingle said while mingling inthe Haven’s halls. “The board of directors looks at a successfulproject, they see the good publicity generated, and it encouragesthem and other state agencies to look at future applications fromBLT. We know we can get a good project out of this – it’s likeexperience on a resume.”

MDAH has worked closely with BLT throughout the restorationprocess, as the Haven – which is listed on the National Register ofHistoric Places – cannot be altered from its original historicalspecifications during modification. The department has providedguidelines, direction and financial support through grants.

Another state agency that has been supportive of BLT’s effortsis the Mississippi Arts Commission. MAC Executive Director MalcolmWhite said the Haven would be high on the list of potential MACgrant lettings if the Legislature makes an appropriation to theagency’s building fund.

“All things being equal, if we have money to give, there’s agood possibility for the Haven to receive some of it,” he said. “Welove to see projects come back to us in phases.”

White said MAC is working hard to get refunded, adding that thesuccess of the Haven’s restoration makes a great point as to why itshould be.

“This is sort of the centerpiece for the renovations of downtowndistricts,” he said. “You see this economic engine – the creativeeconomy – and when you see the arts revitalized, economicdevelopment follows. It’s a theory I carry with me everywhere, andhere in Brookhaven, I get to see it in action. Once is starts, itcan happen really quickly.”

The creative economy isn’t far from the mind of locallegislators – District 92 Rep. Becky Currie is a member of the BLTBoard of Directors, and District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak and District 39Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith attended the membership party.

“I think it’s great the theater is being preserved – I remembercoming here to the movies as a kid,” Moak said. “Historicaldowntowns like Brookhaven’s need to do these kinds of things, andwe need to get behind them and support them. We’ll sit and watch,and help any way we can.”

Hyde-Smith said seeing the Haven lighting the downtown skybrought back old memories.

“… and I’m sure it will make new ones,” she said. “This givesme more bragging rights for this wonderful community. It just showswhat motivated people can get together and accomplish.”

Brookhaven Mayor Bob Massengill thinks about the creativeeconomy – on West Cherokee Street anyway – every day. He too hasplenty of memories of watching movies at the Haven during hisyouth, but now the theater means something more.

It makes his city look good.

“This is just one more commitment made to make our downtownvital, alive and different from other towns our size,” he said.”BLT really stepped forward and grabbed the bull by the horns.”

And no one can say BLT doesn’t give back to the community.Brookhaven-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce member Rita Rich wasthe winner of the much-anticipated $10,000 draw down that was oneof the main attractions of the membership party.

She plans to show her appreciation by putting a portion of thewinnings back into the Haven’s restoration fund.

“It’s a good cause, and it’s tax deductible,” she said. “Reallyand truly, I had no idea – I just bought the ticket to help withthe theater project. I probably won’t sleep a wink tonight.”