The Akron Civic Theatre is getting a multimillion-dollar infusion to help pay for lobby restoration and renovations and also for an addition tied to the Bowery Project that breaks ground this Friday.

The Knight Foundation has pledged $4 million and the GAR Foundation $1 million for what is expected to be a total $8.5 million project to improve and expand the theater, which opened in 1929.

One part of the money is intended to complete work not done as part of the $22.6 million interior restoration and renovation in 2002 of the theater. The lobby and entry arcade were not included in that project.

The foundation money, announced Thursday, also supports the creation of a new building on South Main Street for the theater’s box office and administrative offices, a multilevel outdoor deck and a giant video screen facing Lock 3, and the renovation of the Whitelaw Building on the other side of the theater as a smaller performance venue.

“We don’t really look at what it does for the Civic. We look at what it will do for this section of downtown and the community at large,” said Howard Parr, Akron Civic Theatre executive director.

The theater will engage in a capital campaign well into 2019 to raise money to complete funding for the projects, Parr said. With the Knight and GAR pledges, the campaign has raised $6.5 million to date.

The exterior project that includes the new building and video screen on the Lock 3 side of the theater is in part about making a statement, Parr said.

It is about “transforming the exterior of our building so it is as much of an asset as the interior is,” he said.

The timetable calls for the exterior work and Whitelaw Building renovation to be completed in 2019.

Parr said he hopes to have the 225-seat, flexible-space Whitelaw venue host its first performances in January 2020. The space is intended for acts and events not suitable for the larger theater, which seats more than 2,500 people.

The Civic attracts about 135,000 visitors annually; a top goal for the interrelated project is to increase those figures to as many as 165,000 annually, Parr said.

Representatives of the Knight Foundation and GAR Foundation said Thursday their organizations pledged millions of dollars because they have long recognized the importance of the Civic Theatre and the Bowery redevelopment to the vitality of downtown Akron.

The GAR Foundation’s pledge is intended solely for the Civic Theatre’s renovations, said Christine Mayer, foundation president.

“Our support is to the Civic. But it is contingent on the whole block going forward,” Mayer said.

The Knight Foundation money is intended to support the Whitelaw renovation and the theater’s new exterior construction, said Kyle Kutuchief, foundation program director for Akron.

The Knight Foundation, founded by late Akron Beacon Journal publisher John S. Knight and his brother, James, supports communities where the Knights had owned newspapers.

Akron’s planning commission last month reviewed plans for what was labeled the Knight Stage at the Akron Civic Theatre. Those plans laid out what the theater and foundations announced Thursday.

Kutuchief said naming rights are still being negotiated with the theater. In addition, the Knight Foundation money is contingent on the Whitelaw Building getting its occupancy permit, he said.

Parr, Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan and Chris Burnham of the Development Finance Authority have been the strongest advocates of the Bowery redevelopment and Civic improvements, both Mayer and Kutuchief said.

“If the Bowery doesn’t move forward, that puts the Civic in a tight spot,” Mayer said. The money going into the Bowery redevelopment and Civic improvements are investments for decades to come, she said.

When the Bowery and Civic projects are done, Akron will be able to call its downtown a neighborhood, Kutuchief said.


Jim Mackinnon covers business and county government. He can be reached at 330-996-3544 or Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or