KEVIN HARVISON | Staff photo

McAlester Tourism Director Billy Sumner, foreground, speaks to city councilors about an offer from the Ardeneum of Oklahoma to transfer ownership of the OKLA Theatre to the city of McAlester, with Ardeneum President Dr. Bert Thomas standing by.

City councilors have a number of questions regarding an offer for the city to accept ownership of the OKLA Theatre in downtown McAlester.

Although it was not set as an action item requiring a vote during the Tuesday night council meeting agenda, the offer from the Ardeneum of Oklahoma Charitable and Educational Foundation, Inc. to transfer ownership of the OKLA to the city still generated plenty of discussion.

City of McAlester Tourism Director Billy Sumner encouraged the council to accept the offer.

“It’s a positive opportunity for our citizens and downtown McAlester,” he said.

Conditions set by the Ardeneum Board of Directors to transfer ownership of the OKLA to the city includes requirements that the city renovate the OKLA within five years of the agreement’s passage, preserve its historical significance and use it for the good of the community.

It will take an estimated $1 million to $1.5 million to complete the renovations, Sumner said.

The OKLA Theatre opened on July 10, 1931, at the site of the Palace Theatre, which had been destroyed by a fire on Dec. 30, 1930.

Sumner noted that the OKLA Theatre closed as a place to see movies on Sept. 4, 1989. Later, members of the Kiamichi Actors Studio, or KAST, used it for plays and other events.

In 2013, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality awarded a grant for the removal of asbestos from the OKLA, with the asbestos abatement completed in 2015.

With the ongoing work, seats were removed from the OKLA. “They pretty much gutted it,” Sumner said.

With the then-approaching 150th anniversary of J.J. McAlester establishing a trading post in what is now known as McAlester, talks began late last year between members of the Ardeneum Board and the city’s Tourism Department.

“It was decided by the Ardeneum they would like to hand it over for a mere dollar,” said Sumner.

“It’s an historical icon to the city of McAlester,” Sumner said of the OKLA.

He also showed pictures on a projection screen that showed the OKLA figuring predominantly in the foreground of a poster-like picture used by the Tourism Department and in a statewide ad about McAlester used in a commercial for BancFirst.

Sumner cited a list of possible uses by the Oklahoma, ranging from town hall events and conferences, to plays, concerts and hopefully the showing of movies, similar to what the city does with its Movies in the Parks campaign. The OKLA would be available as a backup in case of a rainout at the park, and there’s the possibility of showing movies year-round, Sumner said.

“It would not compete with the Expo,” Sumner said. The Expo Center would continue to be used for larger events, he said. The OKLA would offer a mid-sized venue in downtown McAlester.

Sumner said the Ardeneum is using its funds on the OKLA and he noted two Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant restrooms are being added to the first floor. Previously, the public restrooms were up a staircase on the mezzanine.

“They also gained access to a novelty shop,” Sumner said. It can be utilized to sell souvenirs and other items, he said. A reconstructed ticket booth has also been added.

“Changes are happening, clearly,” Sumner said.

He said the city could seek grassroots funding, not only from those who have ties to the OKLA, but also from those who support preserving vintage theaters.

“We could get support from across the U.S.,” Sumner said.

Mayor John Browne asked about what kind of money it was going to take to complete renovations.

“We estimate it to be a million to a million-and-a-half,” Sumner said.

Ardeneum Board of Directors President Dr. Bert Thomas also addressed the council. He said the Ardeneum acquired the OKLA to keep it from being torn down.

Thomas also referenced the OKLA’s history. “Everybody who ever grew up in McAlester knew exactly who they sat with,” he said.

Thomas said recent OKLA improvements include a new sanitary sewer system and a water line. New electrical wiring has been added.

He said the Adrdeneum still has the 500 seats that were removed from the OKLA.

“We hope the city will accept our gift for its 150th birthday,” Thomas said.

Ward 5 Councilor Maureen Harrison asked if the Ardeneum had been hiring locally for the renovation work. Thomas said they had hired several local businesses and companies. He also said the late Lew Crowl personally paid for renovating and repairing the theater marquee and Thomas paid for a new roof on the OKLA.

Harrison then spoke of segregation that was in place through the 1950s and part of the 1960s.

“You’re perfectly right to mention it,” Thomas said. “It’s a lesson for us.”

Harrison said she thinks it’s important to remember that part of the history. “Some, who are older, won’t have all those feelings,” she said, referring to memories of the OKLA. Harrison said she would like that aspect to be included in narratives of the OKLA’s history.

Sumner indicated new memories can be made with a revitalized OKLA.

“I think this is a great opportunity to provide those memories to everyone,” he said.

Ward 6 Councilor Zach Prichard asked if there is a business plan in place.

Sumner said McAlester Tourism had visited the McSwain Theatre in Ada. That facility is owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation and features live performances and movies.

“They bring in acts, even some Branson-type shows,” Sumner said. He said those kind of events could be brought to the OKLA.

Prichard asked “Why can’t these things happen without the city of McAlester?” Sumner said the city could use its Tourism Department to help with the events.

City Manager Pete Stasiak was asked about his thoughts.

“I think this is a tremendous opportunity for our city,” Stasiak said. “Opportunities like this don’t come around very often.

“I think there’s an opportunity to build this, get it right and get it open for business,” he said.

Prichard suggested the OKLA could be refurbished without the city’s involvement, citing the availability of tax credits as an example.

“I would rather the city of McAlester get out of the event business,” Prichard said. “I think we will spend quite a bit of money to renovate it and quite a bit of money to operate it.”

Mayor Browne said “We could contract it out.”

Sumner noted that the OKLA agenda item was not set for a vote during the meeting.

“We hope to bring it back at the next meeting,” Sumner said, referring to the July 23 council meeting.

Ward 3 Councilor Read offered his input.

“Before this is brought back again, I would like to see some reasonable numbers put together,” Read said.

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James Beaty is senior editor at the McAlester News-Capital