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Kiel gets a new name -- Peabody Opera House -- and a $78 million facelift

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2010 - It may take some getting used to, but Kiel Opera House got a new name today -- Peabody Opera House, as in the downtown-based Peabody Energy.

No one would disclose how much the company paid for the naming rights, but Gregory Boyce, Peabody's chairman and CEO, said it is "fitting" that his company will help bring the 1930's Art Deco gem back to life for concerts, Broadway shows and other entertainment.

"For more than half a century, Peabody has called downtown St. Louis home as we power people's lives all over the world. We are now proud to help turn this opera house into a home for creative energy, brightening people's lives and further enhancing the city's magnificent cultural landscape," Boyce said.

The announcement of the name change came as dozens of St. Louis officials, representatives of the St. Louis Blues ownership group, developers Christopher McKee and Paul Joseph McKee III, and others, gathered inside the opera house for the official kick-off of a $78.7 million renovation.

For a place closed since 1991, when the adjoining Kiel Auditorium was torn down to make room for what's now the Scottrade Center, the opera house was in surprisingly good shape. If you looked hard, you could find small signs of what appeared to be an old water leak in the two-story-tall main lobby and stained faded carpeting. Lights need replacing, and the chairs in the main auditorium are very dusty.

But the original marble-clad walls and columns, the floors, ornate ceilings and even the original glass Art Deco chandeliers looked perhaps faded in places, but generally intact.

"It looks incredible after all those years," said Dale Ruthsatz, director of commercial development at the St. Louis Development Corp., who was among those at today's gathering.

Michael Roberts, who with his brother Steven, renovated the Roberts Orpheum Theater downtown, said he welcomed the reopening of the opera house. His view contrasted sharply with Richard Baker, president of Fox Associates, who says a reopened opera house will be tax-supported competition with the Fox Theatre, and result in higher ticket prices.

"This is great," Roberts said as he and others walked through the opera house's main theater. "Our seating (at the Orpheum) is between this, and what's at the Fox. This will add a venue so we will have much more entertainment in St. Louis."

With construction finally underway, the plan, in the making for years, is to reopen the opera house in the fall of 2011.

The main players are New York-based SCP Worldwide, which acquired the Blues and long-term leases for Scottrade and the opera house in 2006, and the McKee brothers. Christopher McKee is a principal at Optimus Development, Paul Joseph McKee III is president and CEO of Paric Corp, general contractor for the opera house rehab. Both are sons of Paul McKee, founder of McEagle Properties, who worked on the opera house project with SCP initially, but is now focusing on an $8.1 billion, 20-year plan to revive north St. Louis.

David Checketts, SCP's founder who was involved in running Madison Square Garden and renovation of Radio City Music Hall, said Broadway shows, concerts, family shows and other entertainment are being lined up for the opera house's 3,200-seat main theatre. An affiliate of SCP will operate the renovated opera house; some shows will be those produced by Running Subway, SCP's production company.

Four smaller assembly rooms , each with its own stage, separate entrance and room for seating for 400 or so, will be renovated for smaller gatherings, such as community theater groups, business conferences, weddings and the like.

Christopher McKee said that one of the four assembly rooms will be set aside as a VIP lounge for patrons. Another, he said, will be for use by local theater groups, and rented to them at "a nominal sum."

The old Kiel Club area on a lower level, he said, will be renovated for use as a restaurant.

The renovation also will include a larger loading dock area and a new sound barrier between the opera house and Scottrade next door. The original sound barrier -- two 10-inch thick electrically powered steel curtains -- no longer exists.

McKee said the developers intend to resume talks with the St. Louis treasurer's office about building a parking garage just east of the opera house, on what is now the upper level of the parking lot behind City Hall.

"We can open without it," he said, "but would like to have it."

Mayor Francis Slay, who like others spoke from beneath a hard hat today, said that getting the opera house transformed from an "eyesore" to an asset is important for downtown's continuing revival. That will bring jobs, "new visitors to downtown, bring more entertainment options to our city, and save a prominent, beautiful building," he said.

Financing for the project consists of:

  • Nearly $32.6 million in bonds issued by the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.
  • Just over $28 million in state and federal historic, New Markets and Brownfield tax credit equity and proceeds.
  • $10 million in first leasehold mortgage financing from Midland States Bank.
  • $6.9 million from the McKee bothers as a deferred developers fee that they will get back after certian private debt is repaid. 

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered downtown redevelopment.

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