Madison Theater could come back to life in downtown Peoria with renovation
- The historic theater closed in 2003 due to code violations.
- A fire in 2016 was determined to be arson, but the investigation is still open.
- A deal with a potential new owner of the Madison could be finalized by September.
PEORIA – The Madison Theater has seen better days.
Days when Hollywood stars appeared at the Downtown Peoria Theater to promote bond drives during WWII. Days when first-run films would pack the 1,700-seat house. Days when increasingly popular rock bands played there. And the days when Peoria Mayor Rita Ali had her first teenage kiss, as she recently confessed.
Opened in 1920, the Madison has been closed for 18 years and was damaged by arson five years ago this month. But better days may be ahead.
A person interested in rehabilitating the facility is under contract to take over the theater building on Main Street and Madison Avenue, a representative for its owner said.
“For now, if all goes well, the theater will be renovated,” JD Comfort told The Journal Star. “If we sell this place, that’s what they want to do with it. They’ve just finished their seventh or eighth of 10 things they’ve got to do.”
After:Photos of a fire at the Madison Theater in 2016
Comfort, whose family trust owns the building, would not identify the potential owner. But Comfort said a deal could be final by September. If and when this happens, it was not clear when labor could begin.
“Some people think we were sitting on our hands, which is not true,” Comfort said of the building’s outdoor inactivity. “We’ve been working to get this sold or something put there for 15 years.”
The potential owner has worked with Comfort for over a year, the current owner said.
If all goes according to plan, a refurbished Madison would host concerts and other shows. Retail spaces along Main Street of the building would be part of the renovation.
The main entrance to the theater is said to be the former home of Rumberger’s Wings and More on the northeast corner of Main and Madison.
“We’re thrilled with it,” said Comfort.
He may not be the only one.
“It’s an important blockage to see something happen”
Some local leaders and developers have long hoped for and planned for a Madison rebirth. The building occupies a privileged space in the city center between two large hotels.
Across Main Street from Madison is the Marriott Pere Marquette complex. One block from Madison Avenue is the Four Points by Sheraton Peoria.
“It’s a big block to see something happen,” said Patrick Urich, City Manager of Peoria, of the Madison.
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Various government financial incentives, including historic state tax credits and tax increase funding, are offered in the Madison area. Over the past decade, there have been some efforts to purchase the property and redevelop it.
Urich and local developer Katie Kim suggested that the amount of money Comfort wanted for the building was prohibitive.
“What is missing in this equation is a developer who comes up with the resources to integrate a project of this size and complexity,” said Urich.
“In previous discussions, the asking price may have been too high, but these are issues the city has nothing to do with. We’re not bringing a developer to the table. We do not set the asking price for a private building. “
With the help of other investors, Kim was ready to pay.
In 2014, Kim proposed a rejuvenation of the Madison in a concert space or a conference center / special event venue. It also proposed the construction of a multi-storey mixed-use structure on top of a city-owned parking lot adjacent to the building.
According to Kim, architectural and law firms were among the entities committed to occupying the space in the complex. A group of out of town restaurants were also interested. A residential space has been planned.
But the negotiations are at a standstill. A leak in the roof of the theater, and which it was up to to fix, started the downward spiral, according to Kim.
“It broke my heart,” she said. “I can’t get past this block without having a little heart pain.”
Economic changes made a similar project impossible today, according to Kim. But she believes a Madison opportunity exists, especially given the government incentives.
“I guess I’m an eternal optimist,” Kim said. “I still think there is a way to save a building, even when the exterior walls literally collapse.”
The 2016 fire was determined to be arson
The state of Madison has long been a subject of speculation, particularly since June 4, 2016. It was around this time that a nighttime fire damaged parts of the stage and basement.
Arson was determined to be the cause, according to reports at the time. Peoria Fire Chief James Bachman said the investigation remains open.
“We are still pursuing certain leads that come up occasionally,” he said. “It is not uncommon for some of our files to be open for several years.
Over the winter, there was an issue with the Madison’s sprinkler system, Bachman said. A water leak damaged some of the basement’s electrical systems, according to the city’s community development department.
“I think, just as a lot of people in the community feel, it’s very frustrating to see the slow and steady deterioration of Madison Theater,” Urich said. “If the building continues to deteriorate, the owners are going to have to do something about it.
“I hope it doesn’t get to the point where it deteriorates so badly.”
This is not the case, according to Comfort. The Madison building is healthy, he said in reference to a recent technical inspection.
“They say it’s in good shape, good bones,” Comfort said. “The fire didn’t do anything except smoke the place. We’ve always kept it going.”
A new roof was built over the theater a few years ago, according to Comfort. The iron gates are intended to prevent the entry of potential vandals.
In the fairly near future, maybe those doors will drop and customers will fill the theater again. Maybe not to the extent that it was for the Saturday night and Sunday morning movies, or when Tony Curtis and other actors and actresses appeared in them.
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But a throwback to the Madison of the 1990s is possible, Comfort suggested. Musicians from BB King to The Smashing Pumpkins in Slayer performed at Madison before the city closed it in 2003 due to fire and safety code violations.
“Downtown Peoria flourished when my parents owned this block,” Comfort said. “Every time there was a concert, every restaurant and bar was packed.”
If Comfort’s proposed revitalization effort is successful, it could be music to the ears of Urich, Kim and many others in town.
“I wish them the best,” Kim said, “but it will take a community to bring that back, if we can.”