Sweetwater Sound founder gives Clyde Theatre makeover $1.5M boost

February 16th, 2017

By Kevin Leininger | News-Sentinel

The proposed $5 million conversion of the former Clyde Theatre into an entertainment center received tentative approval for a $1 million state Regional Cities grant Tuesday and will seek a $1 million loan Thursday from the city's Legacy Joint Funding Committee. But the project's biggest boost could be a $1.5 million investment by the owner of a locally based leader in the music industry.

According to the proposal submitted to the committee that screens Legacy requests before heading to City Council for final approval, Sweetwater sound founder Chuck Surack and his wife Lisa would assume a major ownership stake in the renovated theater at 1808 Bluffton Road if certain conditions are met, including final approval of the Regional Cities and Legacy funds and a bank loan of $1.5 million. The Suracks would also buy out the interests of five previous investors in the project for $250,000, and arrangements with other proposed investors would be terminated.

Even Keel Holdings founder Rick Kinney, who in 2012 bought the theater in a county sale of tax-delinquent properties for $500, will retain an ownership interest and manage the venue.

"(Kinney) has a dream and he's a great guy, but he wasn't getting to the finish line," said Chuck Surack, who believes the renovated theater would host up to five concerts per month in its first year of operation, with each event earning at least $20,000 in facility fees and another $15,000 in concessions.

"Most cities have something like this, but there's no space like it here, and some acts drive past Fort Wayne because of it," said Surack, noting that Sweetwater would also use the Clyde to test products and stage events. "The last thing I need is another business, but this will be a great catalyst for the south side of Fort Wayne."

Surack said it was important to reduce the number of owners involved in the project to make it more manageable. Surack said he has also purchased the former bowling alley in the Quimby Village shopping center, although plans for that space remain unclear.

The Clyde closed in 1994 and would be converted into a performance hall that could accommodate a standing-room-only crowd of 2,200 or 612 in seats. Other areas of the theater and adjacent storefronts would also be renovated, as would the shopping center's cratered parking lot. Built in 1950, the Clyde was one of the nation's first suburban movie palaces and was designed by noted local architect A.M. Strauss, whose other works include the Embassy Theatre, Memorial Coliseum and Lincoln Tower.

The proposed loan from the Legacy fund, created through the sale of the old City Light electric utility, would be repaid by taxes generated by the renovated Clyde and other businesses in a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district expected to generate about $131,500 annually. The loan application does not state what rate of interest, if any, would accrue.

Legacy Committee member and City Councilman Paul Ensley, R-1st, wants that question answered before he votes, but said the Suracks' involvement gives the project instant credibility.

"This is a great project. There is no question that Quimby Village is truly a blighted area, and the investment in the Clyde . . . will have a transformative effect on the area," Ensley said. "The overwhelming success of other entrepreneurial live-music endeavors such as Fort Wayne Music Fest has shown that our region is thirsty for live music."

Ensley is usually skeptical of city involvement in economic development but said the Legacy request "is probably the least expensive way to get Regional Cities money for our community since it is a loan. I don't love the fact that the loan is being repaid by the TIF rather than the developer. However, the developer has agreed not to seek tax abatement, so it is kind of a wash."