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With the Smithtown theater up for sale, nonprofit looks to save it

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The nonprofit Smithtown Performing Arts Center organization hosted a Save the Smithtown Theatre Benefit Performance last Saturday in its ongoing efforts to purchase the Main Street landmark.

The idea is not only to save Smithtown’s 90-year-old theater building, which is now up for sale, but the live entertainment and youth programs dependent on it.

And with all that, the group members and others believe, the overall health of the downtown.

“He wants $1.6 million, our down payment would be around $400,000,” JoAnne Romanelli, the secretary of the board of directors, said of Ken Washington, the theater’s owner. “We put an offer in at $1.3 million.”

The board established a GoFundMe page seeking the $400,000 down payment necessary. As of Sept. 25, it has raised just over $12,000, with final tallies from the gala not immediately available.

Romanelli said Washington’s decision to sell did not come as a surprise.

He’s both the building’s owner and former artistic and managing director of the board of directors of the Performing Arts Center group, but he has resided in South Carolina for several years and was looking to retire.

According to Newsday, Washington has been having disagreements with current board leadership over back-rent they say was related to the pandemic shutdowns and a subsequent rent reduction deal.

Washington could not be reached. But Jack Jawdat, president of New York Commercial Real Estate, the firm representing Washington, confirmed the nonprofit group’s offer had been made several weeks ago.

He also said Washington has neither accepted nor declined the offer.

“He’s looking at it given we have a little bit of activity on the place,” Jawdat said in a telephone interview. “We are listening to all offers at the present time, and of course, hopefully we’ll sell it to the right buyer.”

youth programs in danger

The sale of the theatre follows a tumultuous year and a half for the arts and live entertainment around the world, and one of perseverance and adaptation for the performing arts council and the community’s restless performers.

Unable to perform indoors due to COVID-19 restrictions and safety concerns, the arts council and Smithtown’s youth teamed up with the Smithtown Historical Society to ensure the show could go on.

“Our kids shows that we’re doing at the Smithtown Historical Society are selling out, Romanelli said. “We did Moana this summer, we had 140 people almost every single day outside, it’s amazing. We’re doing well, and we’re popular, and people love us. We just need to buy this building so we can stay here.”

Romanelli said the outdoor performances have continued this year, but in November, children and young adults will return to the stage for two-month’s worth of Frozen Jr performances.

The secretary also said she is feeling positive and not envisioning a feature in which the theatre no longer exists.

“We hope to continue, we’re already thinking about programing past January,” Romanelli said. “We do have our kids education fall classes that are going very very strong, which is fantastic, and we hope to be here in the spring to continue that.”

political support

Romanelli’s said her positivity is rooted in the support of local elected officials who want the theater to remain an entertainment hub for the downtown area.

Earlier this month, various town, county and state officials gathered on the stage for a press conference to raise awareness about the threat of losing the theater to a buyer who is not a benefactor to the arts.

At the press conference, Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim said it would be “criminal” to see the building demolished or changed to something other than a theatre, which he referred to as “the anchor to the Smithtown business district.”

“The only way these businesses will survive is if this theatre remains a hub in the business district,” Wehrheim said. “If it does not… you will see millions of dollars in expendable income leave Smithtown and go to other townships, Patchogue, Babylon, Northport, where there are theaters where people can have entertainment and then dine. That’s what people want.”

The supervisor closed his remarks pledging his supporting to keeping the arts in Smithtown.

“We will be out front in raising the funding necessary to make sure this theatre remains a theatre for the performing arts in our town,” he said.

Top: Moana Jr star Gabriella Fugon singing in front of Smithtown Theater for the 2021 Smithtown Festival Day.