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Owner: Georgia Theatre reconstruction could start March 1

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The Georgia Theatre in Athens on Jan. 2. Owner Wilmot Greene says construction will begin March 1, once permits and financing are finalized, but he's still actively seeking donations. AJC photos by Jamie Gumbrecht

Six months after a fire gutted the Georgia Theatre, the Athens building is almost empty inside, barricaded by fence and supported by steel girders. The hull of tje landmark is the most visible reminder of a tragic year for Athens music, one that marked that death of UGA music teachers, musicians, scene regulars and most recently, singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt.

Georgia Theatre owner Wilmot Greene minces no words about it: “I’m glad 2009 is over.”

Already, 2010 is shaping up to be something better. The theater will be rebuilt, the design is set, and the last construction permits were expected to come through this week. The new plans would capture the same feel — a big stage, a sloped floor — but add a few amenities, like an elevator, clean bathroms and a snack bar to serve smoked pork, chicken and tofu. (There are more detailed descriptions in “Better Things Coming,” a story by Cathy Mong in a December issue of Athens’ Flagpole magazine.)

Greene said he’s talking with banks about tax breaks and loans. He hopes the financing will allow a debt load of $2 million or less. It’s more than what he carried at the time of the fire and will put more profit pressure on the business, but it’s doable.

“The less debt load the business has, the more we can run it like an Athens business,” Greene said. “We’ve had some banks show some interest — I think they’re interested in the goodwill and PR this would generate — but the numbers are scary. We’re not sure how this is going to go.”

Fund-raising continues, too, with help from the non-profit Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Greene said he’s like to do more benefit shows, but they’re tough to pull off without a venue. Clubs in Athens and Atlanta have been great, he says, but they’re businesses trying to stay open, too. Not every night can benefit the venue down the street. (The Kinchafoonee Cowboys will play a benefit at Melting Point on Jan. 9, and there’s a Georgia Theatre-presented show featuring Corduroy Road at the 40 Watt on Jan. 8.)

Still, if all goes as Greene plans the next few months, construction will begin on March 1.

Eight months later, he expects the Georgia Theatre to be rebuilt and ready to open.

Want to help? Tax-deductible donations are accepted through the non-profit Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, through the online donation form or through the mail at Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, Attn: Kate Ryan, 1516 Peachtree St. N.W., Atlanta, GA 30309. Write “The Georgia Theatre Rehabilitation Fund” in the memo line.

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Work has stopped on the Georgia Theatre building for now, while the owner secures financing. It’s hard to see progress from the street, but just consider what you see through the windows a few weeks after the fire and then last weekend:

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Georgia Theatre, June 30, 2009: Still a lot to do inside.

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Georgia Theatre, Jan. 3, 2010: Not much left inside -- but there could be, soon.

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