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What’s next for Chapel Hill’s historic Varsity Theatre? Town panel could start thinking

Chapel Hill town officials could appoint a task force to look at the future of the Varsity Theatre, an independent theater on Franklin Street since 1927, as a community performing arts center.
Chapel Hill town officials could appoint a task force to look at the future of the Varsity Theatre, an independent theater on Franklin Street since 1927, as a community performing arts center. 2010 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

The historic Varsity Theatre is not for sale, but Chapel Hill leaders think it might be a good place for a community-owned performing arts center one day.

Jim Rumfelt, who owns the Sorrell Building at 123 E. Franklin St., was unavailable this week, but his business partner, Steve Mills, confirmed the building is not on the market. That doesn’t mean Rumfelt, who leases space to the theater’s owners, is against selling, Mills said.

The Town Council could appoint a 17-member task force led by council members Rachel Schaevitz and Michael Parker on Wednesday night to explore the possibilities. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in Chapel Hill Town Hall.

The task force will talk about how the Varsity Theatre could meet the need for a community performing arts center, the potential costs and benefits to the town, and how a performing arts center could be managed and funded. Suggested uses include music, dance, theater and film performances, as well as space for community meetings and discussions.

Orange County staff will help gather information about the process and possibilities, town staff said. The task force could report back to the council in May.

Varsity Theatre operators Paul and Susan Shareshian have leased the space since 2009, when they bought the business from former owners Bruce and Mary Jo Stone. They are the latest in a line of people who have operated a theater in the Sorrell Building since 1927.

The Stones also owned the independent Chelsea Theater on Weaver Dairy Road until it was sold to a grassroots citizens group Save the Chelsea earlier this year.

Paul Shareshian declined to comment about the Varsity Theatre’s future when reached by phone Monday.

The two-screen theater is known for its low ticket prices, second-run movies, and rental space for parties, fundraisers and community events.

The couple has invested in improvements over the years, raising over $50,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in 2015 to replace the older projectors with newer, digital equipment. They also renovated the space to preserve the theater’s historic ambiance.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said the Varsity could be an even bigger economic and cultural attraction. She noted other cities have turned historic downtown movie theaters into performing arts centers, particularly as online movie providers, such as Netflix, have cut into the market.

The council visited a similar theater during its recent Inter-City Visit to Lawrence, Kansas. Hemminger said she also has been a part of several national mayors conferences over the last few years where the idea was discussed.

The town is not actively seeking the property, but there is taxpayer money available and a community fundraising campaign also is possible, she said. The town also has talked with Emil Kang, UNC’s executive director for the arts, about potential partnerships, she said.

“The driving force is how do we create more opportunities for people to come downtown,” Hemminger said. “Performing venues are high on the list, and that’s where this idea [comes from] — is there an opportunity to create a performing venue that would be more active than a regular movie theater downtown.”

Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
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