It’s all part of the makeover envisioned for Wichita’s Historic Dunbar Theater. The old movie theater, located near at 9th and Cleveland, once was “the” place to go for Wichita’s African American community. Thanks to a successful plea from the community to save our community’s history, in 1992, the theater was saved from the wrecking ball. However, there’s never been any clear plans for how best to use the historic building.
A feasibility plan developed in 2008, left everyone confused and without a clear vision for the facility.
“They were trying to force too much programming into what is a tiny building,” said Dave Oldham, an architect with CJAM Consulting, the company that just completed a capital feasibility ad program business plan for the theater.
So far, CJAM’s feasibility plan is something the community appears prepared to support. Their concept for “The Dunbar,” is pretty simple, “to bring back the essence of what the Dunbar was,” said Candace Jackson, CJAM’s owner.
Built in 1941, the Dunbar Theatre was the anchor of the 9th and Cleveland business community. The district was where people went to be social and patronize the many businesses that lined the intersection. In addition to movies, the Dunbar was a place where African-American performers on tour would perform. It was also a place where community organizations put on pageants and plays. Above all, it reflected the culture of Wichita’s Black community, because in those days of segregation, it was the only option for African Americans.
Fast forward 50 or more years, and Jackson says there’s still a place in Wichita for a small and intimate performing venue that celebrates African-American heritage and culture.
A One-of-a-Kind Venue
There are more than 100 music and theater institutions, museums, performance spaces and special event venues in Wichita. Despite that abundance, the majority of them focus on the experience of White Wichitans, i.e. Black Wichita’s complaint with Intrust Arena.
Jackson says with a focus “dedicated to performing and visual arts of the African-American experience,” the theater would be a unique one of a kind venue without competition.
The Dunbar would present performing, visual arts and films that appeal to Wichita’s African American community, however, it would be accessible to everyone. Certainly the venue and programming would attract people of diverse backgrounds who have an interest in Black culture.
“The Dunbar will fulfill a need, and emerge in a class by itself,” wrote the consultants. “It will be a destination with a one-of-a-kind offering in Wichita.
The Dunbar wouldn’t be large enough to accommodate major national acts, but the consultants say it would be a nice size venue for: a performance by an up and coming artist, a comedy show, a stomp competition, or a play. The small intimate size – an expected 340 seat capacity — also helps fill an existing gap in Wichita; too few mid-sized venues exist.
PHASE I, II, & III
The improvements to bring the theater up to its original glory, with a few improvements like handicapped accessibility, state of art equipment and sound, and the back stage and wings necessary to support live performances, would cost an estimated $5 million. These improvements, described in the business plan as the Phase I expansion, will take the facility from a 4,400 sq. ft. to 25,000 sq. ft. Add owns, in addition to the back of the house area, would also include a two story lobby building with restrooms.
Long term, Phase II, plans include the construction of an additional large and open area that offers more flexibility for programming. This room could be set up in many ways to accommodate different kinds of programming, for example: banquets, trade shows, wedding or performances. Phase II would also include expanded dressing rooms, a caterer’s prep space and office space.
The final proposed phase, would convert the old Turner Drug Store into a cafe, or possibly a bar, adding an exhibition gallery fronting on a garden, education spaces, rehearsal spaces and a strip of complementing retail outlets along 9th street.
The Dunbar District
The retail space is a part of “the rest” of the plan, the creating of The Dunbar District. Remember, the Apollo is in Harlem and the Gem is in the 18th and Vine District. If you’re not there yet, think the Delano District, Old Town or the Riverside Districts. But, don’t think about them too long, since Jackson wants to make sure The Dunbar District doesn’t turn into another one of “those” districts.
“We don’t want it to become a different Old Town that the community doesn’t feel they can go to even if it’s just next door,” Jackson said.
With a culturally focused Dunbar Theater at the core of the district’s redevelopment, and the development of a Dunbar District board or organization to help direct the district’s growth, Jackson says the district should be able to hold true to its historic and cultural nature.
There are several existing properties that could be part of the new economic engine that drives the district: There’s an old retail spot that used to be an ice cream shop, the retail strip on the North East corner of 9th and Cleveland, and the Phyllis Wheatley Children’s home.
CJAM’s vision for The Dunbar and the Dunbar District is turning heads and gaining supporters. The City has committed some funding for the project and with available historic preservation tax credits, POWER CDC, the owner of the Dunbar, is almost half way to their funding goal. The next steps: hiring a development director to help secure the balance of the funds and a PR firm to start building the excitement around what’s to come in the Historic Dunbar.