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Owner of Lamp Theater in Irwin says restoration depends on funding

Thursday, August 07, 2008
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Lamp Theater closed more than three years ago.

Two different owners have since given projections of when the landmark showplace on Main Street in Irwin would reopen.

A small, hand-painted sign on the marquee confidently proclaims: “The Lamp will shine brightly again!”

But folks and borough officials are wondering: When?

Their concern is justified. A revival of the 73-year-old former movie theater could be a key to the 144-year town’s future.

Nearly $400,000 in emergency repairs were made, including replacement of a collapsed roof, extensive interior rehabilitation, disposal of mounds of debris and removal of 387 rain-damaged seats. Then the restoration stopped.

A glimmer of hope returned last month when contractors began installing a new plumbing system and upgrading electrical wiring to comply with national and borough codes.

“Restoration will continue as long as funding holds out,” said Bill Chapman, a partner in Irwin-based Koury, Chapman & Sinclair Real Estate Services. George Koury and Dave Sinclair are the other partners, who bought the theater in February 2005.

“The Lamp is woven into the fabric of the Norwin community,” Mr. Chapman added. “Every time workers appear and doors are open, folks and kids walking by stop to watch. They’re hoping the theater finally will reopen.”

In a complex deal in May 2006, the nonprofit Westmoreland Cultural Trust acquired the title to the theater from the real estate company in exchange for exclusive management rights. No purchase price was ever disclosed. Koury, Chapman & Sinclair agreed to continue its mortgage obligation with Irwin Bank.

Under the agreement, the trust, which operates the Palace Theater in Greensburg, will handle stage bookings and associated event promotion for the Palace and the Lamp. Movies also are planned for the Lamp.

“Actually, KCS donated the Lamp Theater to the trust for $1 because it is vital to the revitalization project,” Mr. Chapman clarified. “It’s easier for the trust to secure community development grants than a private business.

“Most people, including potential investors, who promised to help with funding have disappeared. Commercial money is tight these days. All we can do is hope things will work out.

“Considering the country’s fiscal crisis, nobody can realistically set a timetable for the Lamp to reopen. But, if we can get the right funding to finish most of the restoration, I’m optimistic the Lamp could reopen by late fall.”

Trust Executive Director Michael Langer, who predicted in 2006 that the Lamp would reopen in early 2007, did not return telephone calls seeking comment about the project.

On June 6, IBT Bancorp Inc., the parent company of Irwin Bank, merged with S&T Bancorp Inc., based in Indiana, Pa.

“S&T Bank intends to honor Irwin Bank’s commitments to the Irwin Project and community development in the Norwin Area,” said Charles Urtin, former IBT chief executive officer and now vice chairman of the S&T board of directors.

“S&T Bank will continue to be sensitive to efforts encouraging economic development in the Norwin community and surrounding areas.”

Three years ago, IBT made a commitment to donate $50,000 — in $10,000 increments over five years — to help develop a public-private partnership with the borough for the Irwin Project. That will be honored, said Mr. Urtin, an active member of the Irwin Project Steering Committee.

The Lamp became the anchor of the Irwin Project, an ambitious, long-term, economic revitalization of the business district, after the trust abandoned a planned $1.5 million to $2 million acquisition and renovation of the 119-year-old Thompson Building.

The objective is to turn the town into “Historic Irwin.”

Bob Michaud, a former IBT executive who initiated the revitalization effort nearly four years ago, once predicted the Lamp would be “a beacon” to draw people and investors to town.

“The Lamp Theater is essential to the revitalization of downtown Irwin, especially the business district,” said borough Councilwoman Danyce Neal.

“The theater has touched generations for seven decades.”

Norm Vargo is a freelance writer.
First published on August 7, 2008 at 6:00 am
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