When community theater activists in Columbus banded together to save the historic Springer Opera House, the official State Theatre of Georgia, from the wrecking ball more than 50 years ago, it set in motion an urban renaissance in Columbus that has resulted in more than half a billion dollars in new capital investment in just the past ten years.
Paul Pierce, a native Roman, who is the producing artistic director of the Springer, encouraged developers and investors alike to become involved with historic preservation efforts proclaiming, “Historic preservation means business. Your money will come back to you.”
Pierce helped start the one-day Preservation Celebration at the DeSoto Theatre in Rome on Thursday morning.
Leaders in Columbus had contracted with a wrecking company to tear the old Springer down in 1964, however according to Pierce, supporters of the old theater said “Hell, no!” and convinced the demolition contractor to walk away from the project. The group raised $10,000 to acquire the old opera house, which was constructed in 1871, and started a restoration effort that sparked the entire downtown renaissance in Columbus.
“It changed everything,” Pierce said.
It wasn’t easy.
Pierce explained that back in the early 1960s people who went to events at the Springer were encouraged to bring two sticks.
“One to hold their seat up and the other to beat off the rats at their feet,” he said.
The same group that saved the Springer evolved into the Historic Columbus Foundation in 1966, and since then has been involved to the restoration of more than 500 structures, ranging from the old Southern Railway depot, which is now home to the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce, to the old Eagle and Phenix Mill, which is now home to luxury loft condominiums that sell anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million.
Like his native Rome, Pierce said that Columbus was built to take advantage of its location on the river, in this case, the Chattahoochee.
Five years ago Columbus blew up all the old textile mill dams and invested $25 million in the longest urban whitewater stretch of river in the world.
“When I got to Columbus in 1988 there was only one place to eat downtown before going to a show (at the Springer),” Pierce said.
Today there are 57 restaurants and 11 bars within easy walking distance of the historic theater, and downtown Columbus has a 98 percent occupancy rate.
“We’ve done everything we can to absolutely be essential to the change,” Pierce said. He explained that the millennial culture wants authenticity and there is nothing like historic preservation to be relevant to their needs and wants.
The one-day conference also featured speakers representing the historic Fox Theatre in Atlanta and Ritz Theatre in Toccoa, who spoke of the roles saving those historic properties played in the overall downtown resurrection efforts in their cities.
Mark McDonald, president of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, was also among the presenters at the symposium.
The State Historic Preservation Office will also hold a major preservation conference in Rome on Sept. 18-20.
The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation and the Georgia Alliance of Preservation Commissions are also involved with that event.