Harrison County

Biloxi asks for help restoring Saenger Theatre and gets a ‘tremendous response’

Four groups have now expressed interest in saving Biloxi’s historic Saenger Theatre, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich told the Biloxi Council on Tuesday.

The city’s deadline for request for proposals to restore and operate the downtown theater was Monday. Gilich said the city had a “tremendous response” and said some of the groups that toured the theater told him they needed more time to submit a proposal.

One of the four groups is ACE Theatrical Group, he said, a company that specializes in restoring historic arts buildings and was part of the $53 million restoration of the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans.

Becca Vanderford and two other local business women also have plans for the theater.

“Our proposal, specifically, is to restore the building to its historical state,” she told the council.

She and the two other local business owners, who she said have experience in marketing, restaurants and theater, will be investing their own funds in a public and private partnership, she said.

They envision opening the theater in phases and holding fundraisers, “while driving up the vibe and everyone is getting excited about it.”

She grew up going to see “Oliver” and other performances at the Saenger and said, “We want to bring back Broadway.”

The 975-seat theater isn’t big enough to host all the events people would like to see in Biloxi, she said, but “It is big enough to sustain some of them.”

She hasn’t seen the other proposals but said she heard at least one of the plans calls for taking down a wall and adding more room and more seating.

Gilich said the groups were impressed with the theater, which opened 90 years ago in January 1929.

“They couldn’t believe it once they could see it,” he said. “Some great things can happen.”

The theater, once known as the “Gem of the Gulf Coast,” closed more than a year ago when the 57-foot tall fly wall became unstable and the roof continued to leak. The fly wall is used to lift backdrops above the stage.

The groups had advice for the city, which owns the building, while Biloxi officials continue to explore ways to restore and reopen the Saenger.

“We were encouraged to seal the envelope,” Gilich said, which will require fixing the roof, waterproofing the walls, repairing the fly wall and installing a new heating and air conditioning system on the roof.

The council approved an application for a $2 million Gulf Coast Restoration Grant. Gilich said that money, combined with a $100,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to repair the roof and a $1.9 million match by the city, would cover the exterior restorations.

Councilman Robert Deming III asked if the city shouldn’t wait to see what the private investors propose.

City attorney Peter Abide said this gets the grant application process started and the city’s match will be required only if the grant is approved and accepted.

Gilich said historic and new market tax credits may also be available for a public-private investment to restore the Saenger.

“We’re really encouraged with that,” he said.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald