Brook Run Park was packed on a recent warm Sunday afternoon as Steve and Anita Drange walked past the dilapidated theater building, hidden behind shade trees with “Keep Out” signs posted on the welded shut doors.
“It is a bit rundown,” Steve Drange said over sounds of teens riding skateboards at the nearby skate park. “At one time there were buildings all through these woods. It was a hospital. This is the last one standing.”
Those buildings Drange recalls included dormitories, an administration building and the theater, and were the part of the Georgia Retardation Center, a facility that operated from the 1960s to the late 1990s.
Due to asbestos lining the interiors, neglect, and wear and tear, the buildings were torn down in the years following the center’s closure. The theater building has so far been spared the wrecking ball.
Now efforts to save the Brook Run Theater have led to heated debate in Dunwoody among city officials and residents.
Some want the city to help foot the bill to renovate and repair what they say is a historic building that could be converted to a local, modern theater and community gathering spot. Others say the building is too far gone and no taxpayer money should be used to save it.
“I suspect it would be a tough battle to fight because of how old the building is,” Drange said. He and his wife, who live just a couple of miles from the park, said they support the idea of refurbishing the building and love the idea of a community theater located in the park
“It’s community development. It’s a nice setting,” he said.
“We like theater. We’re regular theatergoers. It would employ local actors and actresses,” she said. “This is a nice area. The development in the area has been great. I don’t know why there is such a controversy. I guess because of the millions it would take to fix it up.”
Costs associated with what to do with the theater building vary, depending on whom you ask.
The Brook Run Conservancy, which backs renovation of the theater, in January sent the Dunwoody City Council a feasibility study it had done to determine costs of renovating the building. That study estimates rehabilitating and equipping the theater would cost, on the low end, about $7.5 million, and on the high end, approximately $18 million.
Headed up by former councilman Danny Ross, the conservancy is seeking a partnership with the city to take on the theater renovation. The conservancy’s study also states the renovation would cost significantly less than constructing a new theater, a price tag it puts at nearly $25 million, not including parking and the purchase of land.
Dunwoody City Engineer Kevin McComber told the council last year it would cost close to $7 million to renovate the theater. He also did not recommend renovation, saying the facility needed to be completely gutted.
At Mayor Denis Shortal’s first town hall meeting on Jan. 21, there was only brief mention of the theater during the public comment period. One resident told Shortal no tax money should go to saving the building, arguing tax funds should go toward athletic fields.
But Sarah Sloan, who has lived in Dunwoody nearly 30 years, said after the town hall meeting she supports the idea of a small, intimate community theater for Dunwoody.
“It’s great to talk about athletics, but you also need music, art — you have to have a soul for a community,” she said. “I don’t want a Verizon theater. I want a small, intimate citywide theater for a small city.”
Councilman Terry Nall has been vocal about his opposition to Brook Run Theater. “Brook Run Park is the wrong location for such use,” he said this month. “The theater use during daylight … evenings and every weekend day would conflict with the other current, active uses of the park.”
Nall also opposes any idea of putting City Hall in Brook Run Park. “If a larger theater and town hall meeting space were constructed in Dunwoody, I believe it is better suited near a future City Hall, where shared-use parking is not in conflict.”
Councilwoman Pam Tallmadge said she is studying available documents on the proposal of Brook Run Theater while Councilman John Heneghan and Councilwoman Lynn Deutsch have questioned locating a community theater or performing arts center in the park; both also have expressed concerns.
Heneghan said this month he wants to wait for the results of a public survey to be going out to residents soon on the city’s parks plan before he makes any final decision of whether or not to support the proposed project.
An attempt to reach Shortal by email for his thoughts on the theater were not successful. Last year, as a councilman, he was the only member who appeared to support the idea, going head-to-head with former Mayor Mike Davis who strongly opposed the plan.