Restoration of Miller Theater still possible

Availability of tax funds key to new option

Recent news about the historic Miller Theater on Broad Street brings back precious memories and hope for Maxine Whisnant. She remembers singing on the Miller stage in her early teens, almost 60 years ago.

Since then, Whisnant has been a member of several Southern Gospel groups, with whom she traveled and recorded.

"I believe that little ol' stage at the Miller started me out and gave me a good foundation to do the things God wanted me to do," she said.

Now in her 70s, Whisnant still belongs to the CSRA Southern Gospel Music Association. Her first "stage experience" outside of church was at the Miller on Satur­day mornings for Youth Re­view. Sponsored by Sanckens Dairy, the weekly contest gave young people the chance to sing for cash prizes.

"It was real nice for the youth in the area," Whisnant said. "That theater has a lot of memories. I think it holds a lot of value for the area. I'd like it to be used in a healthy way, not for something ungodly, but something that's good for the community."

That was Peter Knox's goal in 2005 when he purchased the dilapidated ornate theater, repaired the roof, removed moldy carpet and took steps to prevent water damage.

Knox offered the theater as a gift to Symphony Orchestra Au­gusta at that time, but the symphony never officially took it. In e-mails, SOA said it is working on studies to see whether restoring the building is feasible .

Miller renovations by the symphony were included in a special purpose local option sales tax package approved by voters in June 2009. The symphony was to receive $5.1 million on the condition that it raised an additional $1.2 million .

Last week, Knox announced he was tired of pumping money into the building while waiting for the symphony to respond and was putting the theater on the market.

Instead, Knox has gone with what he called "option two," offering to give the building to Augusta Land­marks.

"Currently, they are determining if the SPLOST money is available to them for the theater, and I think it should be. And I think that certainly a good many voters would agree," Knox said.
Augusta Landmark's Mike Deas said he has taken probably 10,000 people through the Miller on tours, and everyone always says it needs to be restored. Land­mark's hope is to restore the theater as it was in 1940 and use it for ballets, plays, concerts and comedies.

"You have to put quality entertainment on the stage, do more than just make it look pretty again," Deas said.

He said he is trying to meet with Augusta Commission members to find out about the tax funding and "make sure we are on the same game plan."

"Although Augusta Landmarks is a very small, non profit organization, we have the grass roots, people and passion to see the Miller restored," he said, and he wants to give Knox an answer "as soon as we can."

In a previous interview, Tim Schroer, the city's assistant finance director , said that if the symphony does not take over the building and meet the conditions, the tax money would be "redirected within the category of parks/recreation/culture/library/facilities."

Reach Lynn Davidson at (706) 823-3332 or lynn.davidson@augustachronicle.com.