Rex Theatre

Guests chat at the Revival of the Rex groundbreaking/wall breaking ceremony at the Rex in late January 2019. The Palace Theatre Trust is renovating the historic space into a 300-seat multi-use venue.

MANCHESTER — Renovations at the Rex Theatre are well underway, officials hope to open a new performance hall at the site Oct. 1, and a major sponsor for the venue has been secured.

Those were the major takeaways from a roundtable discussion held Monday to update 27 interested parties on the progress of renovations at the Rex Theatre site, 23 Amherst St.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Jan. 28 for the project, borne out of a partnership between the Manchester Development Corporation and the Palace Theatre.

“I think this project is going to make a significant difference in the economy of downtown Manchester, and the life of the people that live here,” said Peter Ramsey, president and CEO of the Palace Theatre. “We’re off and running. We’ve been in there for about a month now. It’s moving around. We’ve had some ups and down, but things are moving in a positive way.”

City aldermen voted in October to approve a partnership between the Manchester Development Corporation (MDC) and The Palace Theatre to renovate and operate the Rex Theatre as a performance venue. Under the agreement, the MDC is loaning the Palace Theatre $1.7 million to renovate the building into a 300-seat multi-use theater and function space.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Palace Theatre will repay that loan — with a 2 percent annual interest — over 10 years.

“The $1.7 million sounds like a lot, but by comparison they are spending in Concord for the same size facility $4 million,” said Ramsey. “We feel confident we will stick with the $1.7 million. Next week we plan to reveal we have a full sponsor for $250,000 for 10 years. They are a great business in Manchester and we are very excited about it.”

Ramsey said he plans to reveal the sponsor during next week’s meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. He said organizers have also applied for a state grant that could bring in more than $400,000 if approved.

“Before we open, we could have a third of the money already raised,” said Ramsey. “The support has been incredible for the project.”

Cornerstone Construction is handling the project. Paul Ramsey, former vice president of operations at Eversource, is overseeing the renovation work for the Palace Theatre. He said since work began at the site on Jan. 29 crews have encountered “good surprises and bad surprises.”

“With old buildings you never know,” said Paul Ramsey. “We began with asbestos abatement, and that has been removed. We expect demolition to be completed in the next couple of weeks. We just found out the roof does need to be replaced. Our target date remains Oct. 1. That’s very aggressive.”

In 2001, Manchester officials temporarily closed a club at 23 Amherst St. because of crowding they deemed life-threatening, and for other safety code violations. A fire that same year also temporarily shuttered the club, which came under scrutiny because of patrons getting arrested after leaving. The club finally closed permanently several years later.

A purchase and sale agreement for the property between the MDC and The Rex LLC — a partnership between philanthropist Liz Hitchcock and Gray Chynoweth, chief membership officer for the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute — fell apart when the pair pulled out of negotiations with the city, saying their plan to use the site as a performance venue was no longer “economically viable.”

That marked the second time in less than a year a potential buyer walked away from a proposal for the property. In March 2017, Matt Wilhelm, executive director of Old Sol Music Hall, Inc. — who proposed a live music venue for the site — said after months of negotiations, Old Sol Productions and the MDC were unable to agree to terms for a purchase and sale agreement.

Both Wilhelm and Hitchcock are now helping to head up “Team Rex,” a group of volunteers and interested parties starting to brainstorm ideas for what the new venue will look like.

“This will be another venue where you can see all different types of people and something they can enjoy,” said Hitchcock, who owns and operates The Bookery on Elm Street. “That’s really what it’s all about, helping to build the workforce and helping to build the economy.”

“This will create a community center and live performance venue with a really robust schedule,” said Wilhelm. “My hope is for a place where on any given night there’s a really diverse schedule of events.”

“We’re coming at it as a multi-use venue,” said Peter Ramsey. “You could have a wedding. Dean Kamen could come over and have a meeting, you could have political events. Anything we have in here is going to be very intimate, which should help us sell tickets.”