This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The garish signs in the front windows of Imber's men's store in the heart of downtown Edwardsville screamed “SALE: Going out of business.” Inside, a patron was asking owner Alan Legow to say hello to Legow's father, Jerry, “who was the first person to extend me credit when I was a teenager.” It seemed a sad story, the end of another mom and pop store, this one a North Main Street fixture since the late 1930s, another victim of the economy.
But it wasn't.
No, Alan Legow said, business is fine, thank you, in large part due to a naturally occurring clientele of men who populate the Madison County administrative offices and courthouse down the street. He simply wanted to concentrate on the clothing design business he runs out of his home in Chesterfield. And that meant closing the last of what once was an eight-store chain started 90 years ago in Belleville by his grandfather, Hyman Imber.
Further down the street at 225 North Main, the marquee of the restored Wildey Theatre hangs over the sidewalk, a truer clue to the state of downtown Edwardsville. Two years after the city reopened the Wildey, merchants who stay open after dark are more likely to join their daytime peers in agreeing that business is fine, thank you, due to patrons drawn to the theater's mix of concerts by touring artists, tribute and local bands, and by movies.
It is difficult to quantify the Wildey's impact on Edwardsville. It is tiny as theaters go with only 325 seats. But one hard number exists: 21,000. That's the number of people who attended ticketed events at the Wildey in the past year, people who may not have come downtown otherwise.
As Imber's (144 North Main) was clearing out its inventory on that unseasonably warm Saturday midafternoon in January, the dining room at the Cleveland-Heath restaurant at 106 North Main was practically full. When Jenny Cleveland and her boyfriend/partner, Edward Heath, opened their doors in November 2011, they had restaurant experience, but not as owners.
“I'd been in a couple of restaurants in Edwardsville, and it seems like every time I came here, there was something new or something better,” Cleveland, a native of the area, says of her search for a location. “And downtown seems to have been revitalized quite a bit. The Wildey was one of the things we looked at when we thought about what's going on here. … It felt like (downtown) had good energy.”
Musical acts at the Wildey range from veteran performers such as folk icon Judy Collins to rock bands that may be past their commercial peak, such as the Little River Band, as well as local bands and musicians. Upcoming shows will feature the roots/jazz Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, reunited country duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Pure Prairie League and '60s folk pioneer Tom Rush. The Wildey also books a number of tribute bands, including Houses of the Holy: A Tribute to Led Zeppelin on March 30.
Cleveland and Laurie Chaves, owner of Laurie's Place (Chill-n-Grill-n-Tunes) at 228 North Main, a few doors from the Wildey, both say they benefit from theatergoers before and after concerts at the Wildey.
“The Wildey has increased my business some,” says Chaves, who has operated Laurie's Place for 16 years. “I get a lot of dinner crowd from when they have their concerts there – not when they have their movies, but when they have good concerts. I benefit from that before and after.”
1909: The shows begin
The Wildey Theatre opened on Easter Monday in 1909 as a 1,150-seat, Victorian-style opera house featuring two balconies and opera boxes. It had meeting space upstairs for the Independent Order of Oddfellows, whose co-founder, Thomas Wildey, is the building's namesake. The theater cost $30,000 and had a major renovation in the mid-1930s that gave the theater its distinctive marquee.
Over the decades, the Wildey was host to concerts, vaudeville shows and movies. Pitt Theater ran it from 1974 to '84 as a movie house, but the building was damaged by a tornado in 1981, and Pitt's final movie was “The Big Chill” in 1984. And there it sat, essentially empty, for 25 years. A plan for the Madison County Arts Council to buy the Wildey fell through in 1986, and although the Wildey was bought in 1987 for $85,000 by a couple from the Netherlands, its days as a full-time movie house were over.
Edwardsville bought the building in 1999 for $250,000.
“One of my concerns was that the city owned a derelict building,” says city administrator Ben Dickmann, a lifelong Edwardsville resident who started as a police officer in 1969 and served as the city's police chief for 25 years before becoming the city's first administrator in December 1999.
“We couldn't find any private sector interest in buying it. We tried for a decade and a half or so, to get it sold, nobody was interested in buying it, and in the meantime we had a derelict building in downtown, and we owned it. And that I think was a terrible community-relations position to be in, and I'm glad the City Council made the decision to renovate the place and put it into operation.”
1999: New roof begins new life
Support for the project was not unanimous. Some people grumbled about the use of tax-increment financing, which has been controversial elsewhere. Others wanted to knock the building down and make it a parking lot -- parking remains an issue. Dickmann says more parking is available today than there was when the Wildey had almost twice as many seats.
Former City Councilman Rich Walker, who worked on redeveloping the Wildey for 12 of his 16 years on the council, says, “You would be pretty hard pressed I think to find those same naysayers today. Now, they see that we have events in the building every weekend, there's a traffic jam downtown, there are people walking the sidewalks, and the restaurants and bars have somebody inside them, and we have some new restaurants, and they're terrific.
“There's a new type of crowd that comes in before and after the shows. And you can tell, in the restaurants and coffee shops, that people are coming from the shows because the program is on the table. (Some merchants) say now, we need some parking, but I really like having customers, rather than an empty parking lot and no customers.”
The Wildley was renovated in stages:
- a $300,000 state grant in 1999 to buy the building and replace the roof;
- $450,000 in TIF revenue by mid-2005 to seal and rehab the exterior and restore the marquee;
- and then $2.9 million authorized in 2009 to renovate the interior and add 21st century technology, including wi-fi. The second balcony and opera boxes were removed; meeting space was added on the second floor; and additional function space is now available on the third floor.
2011: Reborn, reopened
The reborn Wildey, in all of its art deco glory, opened on April 12, 2011, exactly 102 years after it first opened. The Intelligencer reported that each woman attending was given a yellow rose, as former employees and friends of the theater returned for tours and a show put on by high school students.
By the time the Wildey project began, much of today's downtown Edwardsville was already in place. Edwardsville, like so many other cities, boomed after World War II, but that boom turned around in the '70s with the rise of suburban shopping malls that sucked business out of traditional downtowns.
“We have one thing going for us that most downtowns don't, and that is that Edwardsville is a county seat,” says Walker, assistant vice chancellor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and president of the fundraising Friends of the Wildey. “We had the county admin and court buildings already here. So there was a mass of people here for lunch. So the lunch places did OK. The dry cleaners did OK. But it was pretty tough to do much else on many other types of business.”
First came the three-building Mark Twain Plaza office complex at Vandalia and North Main streets that replaced a rundown furniture store in the early '90s. A new county administration building adjacent to the courthouse on North Main at Hillsboro Avenue came next, with a county bus terminal across the street on Hillsboro that is nicer than some public parks.
“Those were some pretty significant changes,” Walker says. “And then the city came through and replaced all the sidewalks and buried all the (power and utility) cables, and they put decorative furniture downtown and really upgraded the public infrastructure, of not just Main Street but all throughout downtown. Decorative light fixtures was the first project I led for the city, and I think it played a huge role in just making the downtown feel more welcoming. We were very fortunate to be able to do that.”
All of that was in place before the Wildey reopened. Financing of the almost $3 million interior renovation is split among three revenue sources: a 3 percent entertainment sales tax; a downtown redevelopment TIF district; and donations, grants and operating income. The current fiscal year (May through April) budget for the Wildey is projected to be balanced, as is the next one, Dickmann says. Theater expenditures and revenues this year are about $1.3 million.
The future: Money matters
Most of the major concerts pay for themselves. Movies, however, are losing money. And the standalone Wildey Fund, which is fueled in part by the entertainment sales tax and pays salaries at the theater, is not profitable, something Dickmann hopes to fix. Three full time and 28 part-time theater employees are paid about $165,000 this year.
And Dickmann is not absolutely sure the Wildey will ultimately be a success. He hopes the City Council, which reviews the project annually, will give it five years.
“We don't want to rely on any tax money, eventually,” he says. “Will that happen? I don't know. Right now, I'm a little concerned. But it's going to be the public that decides if they're willing to let the treasury of the city support the Wildey even if it doesn't pay for itself.
“I can't stress enough that our goal is for it to pay for itself. The public has shown such a love and interest in this theater, I can assure you there will be a lot of people who will want it to remain open no matter what.”