Rome is a medical hub, the home to five post secondary colleges (don't forget the medical college campus downtown), it's a destination for outdoor recreation and offers a wealth of cultural opportunities across the broad spectrum of the arts.

The arts community alone could certainly be a major focal point for drawing visitors to Rome and Floyd County. Mandy Maloney, executive director of the Rome Area Council for the Arts and operations manager for the DeSoto theater, said the arts are a big part of why people move into a community.

"Sporting events for a day or two or a weekend are nice, but arts and culture can be a reason why people actually move to the community." Maloney said.

The historic DeSoto Theatre, built in 1929 as the first movie house built for “talkies” in the south, has been a drawing card for the arts and part of the ambiance of downtown Rome since restoration work started seriously a little over a decade ago.

The Historic DeSoto Theatre Foundation has partnered with the Fox Theatre Institute out of Atlanta for several projects that have brought new life to the theater and added to the Broad Street venue's value to the local economy.

The Fox Theatre Institute's most recent grant was a $20,000 gift for the installation of a new fire alarm system. The local foundation sought the assistance after applying to the Rome Alcohol Control Commission for a permanent license to sell alcoholic beverages at the venue. Chris Jackson, the outgoing president of the local foundation, explained the foundation had always applied for the beverage permit on a case by case basis, but when activity at the theatre started to increase significantly the foundation decided to seek a permanent license.

Part of the process for obtaining the license involved an inspection of the facility by the Rome Fire marshal's office and during that inspection, the need to update the fire alarm was discovered.

A $20,000 Urgent/Emergency Grant was provided by the Fox Theatre Institute and Parker FiberNet was hired to do the work. This past Wednesday, Leigh Burns, the director of the Fox Theatre Institute, came to Rome to check on the progress of the work as part of the FTI's follow-up procedures to make sure their funds were being used for the intended purposes.

"Our Fox board has invested half a million dollars in outreach through support of grants this year, so we’re very excited," Burns said. "It brings in and ensures that audiences across our state are comfortable and safe and the buildings are preserved and protected. It's an ongoing investment for us."

Dave Parker has been a longtime supporter of the DeSoto, and contributed $23,000 worth of labor toward the design and installation of the new alarm system.

"We have come to appreciate having this facility, a place where kids can come and adults can come," Dave Parker said. "This wasn't a project that we were looking to make money off of."

Caleb Bevel, the project manager for Parker FiberNet, said it was enjoyable to take the extra time to bring newer technology into a nearly 90 year old building.

"It was an interesting task," Bevel said.

The theater has had an alarm system that makes direct contact with the fire department in the event of an emergency. The new system features a vocal evacuation alert, has loud beeps and includes strobe-like effects to alert everyone of an emergency.

It's not the first time the Fox Theatre Institute has partnered with the local theatre group.

"We're proud to have been FTI's first project in 2008," said Michelle Picon, vice-president and a founding member of the Historic DeSoto Theatre Foundation.

FTI provided assistance for a complete restoration of the interior lobby, restoring the 1929 plaster ceiling, rejuvenating the playbill boxes and upgrading the ticket booth at the entrance to the theatre.

Chris Jackson said, "The push that the Fox gave the DeSoto in 2008 was exactly what the theater needed at the time the foundation was being established." He said the fledgling foundation was able to generate new excitement for the theater and attract additional financial assistance from across the community for continuing upgrades to the theatre.

Jackson said the Rome Little Theatre occupies the space about 60 percent of the time while the HDTF brings in everything from high opera performances to bluegrass music shows and much more the rest of the time.

"I think the beauty of historic theaters is it really provides a sense of place that other theaters don’t," Burns said during her visit to the theater. She said the DeSoto and Fox offer experiences that allow visitors to feel the history and become a part of the community.

"That’s one of the things that we try to instill in our other theaters and partners across the state, like DeSoto, to really take advantage of holding on to that uniqueness of historic preservation."

Burns said that venues like the Fox and DeSoto are able to attract artists who want their fans to have a more intimate experience and contribute to the economic viability of the greater community.

"We really hope that our investment in these theaters across the state will increase tourism and economic development, pull people from other parts of your region to start attending different performances here," Burns said.

"Everybody goes out for dinner before a show," Maloney said. "I think it has a huge impact on downtown. We've been able to bring in some amazing outside talent and we have people from Atlanta who will drive up, just because it's not Atlanta. They love the charm of downtown Rome. They love the small town feel with the big time culture."

The Downtown Development Authority served as a conduit for a Tourism Product Development grant of $20,000 to the DeSoto in November of 2014. Those funds were used to completely upgrade the concession and catering kitchen sections of the building.

Proceeds from all events at the DeSoto benefit the preservation, restoration and operation of the theater. In addition to the Rome Little Theatre presentations, the theater also serves the neighboring Seven Hills Fellowship Church for Sunday services.

Rent payments from the church cover the loan repayments for a 2014 $100,000 Georgia Cities Foundation loan through the Downtown Development Authority.

Jackson will be succeeded as interim president of the Historic DeSoto Theatre Foundation by David Clonts, while Jim Powell will serve as vice president. Picon will transition to focus on fundraising and grant writing. Elections will actually be held later this spring. 

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