Notebook

Restoring Opera House to Rebuild Business

Hugh Turner remembers “November and December, the busier times of the year.” Drivers looped around Main Street in downtown Newberry, S.C., looking for parking spaces. All five municipal lots filled.

That was in the mid-’60s, right after he opened Turner Jewelry. Downtown Newberry, in the Central Piedmont area of South Carolina, boomed.

It was in those boom times that a movement developed to knock down Newberry’s Opera House, a Victorian structure of yellow-brown stone. The French Gothic clock tower of the Opera House dominated the city skyline, and until it closed in the ’30s, the facility drew to Newberry performers such as Tallulah Bankhead and Tex Ritter.

The proposal was vetoed by a city manager. Instead, he moved Newberry’s municipal offices into the Opera House, which became, in effect, City Hall.

Fast forward 30 years, to 1994. First Belks, then B.C. Moore’s, the last of Newberry’s downtown department stores, close. Twenty-two storefronts on Main Street sit empty. The Opera House stands unused and deteriorating, the city administration having long since moved to a new building.

After the closing of the department stores, “traffic fell off dramatically,” says Turner.

That left the jeweler and a few other merchants forlornly waiting it out on Main Street. Fellow businesspeople advised him to relocate out to “the By-pass,” that nexus of malls, strip centers, and discount stores on the outskirts of town.

“I considered it.” But Turner, who owns his building, rejected the idea. Paying mall rent was “not cost-effective.” He had already “bit the bullet” in 1990 and remodeled, putting in new cases and a new exterior.

Not long after, Turner and “six or seven” other merchants formed a board for the Newberry Downtown Development Association. Around the same time, another group organized the Newberry Opera House Foundation, dedicated to turning downtown Newberry into a regional arts and entertainment center, the Opera House serving as catalyst and focal point.

The development association board started by launching a Fall Festival. But the festival was discontinued after two years. “Too commercial,” says Turner. “I thought we might be putting the cart before the horse,” he explains. “Trying to get people to come to downtown Newberry before we had restoration.”

Instead, the board – Turner served as president one year – concentrated on improving infrastructure and recruiting new businesses. Grant writing and fund-raising got under way. For example, the theater’s 450 new seats were “sold” for $1,000 each, with purchasers awarded a plaque to be placed on the backs. “We purchased one,” Turner notes. Eventually, state and private sources came up with $3 million to transform the Opera House from a moldering ghost to a fully functional performance space.

In June, the Opera House reopened with a performance by television actress Dixie Carter and her husband, the TV and movie actor Hal Holbrook.

“I heard Barbra Streisand called [to say] she has an interest in doing a performance.”

Last month, the downtown development association relaunched the Fall Festival, with country star Crystal Gayle singing. Turner Jewelry held a trunk sale during her 3:00 matinee, donating a portion of the proceeds to the Opera House Foundation.

Today, nine of 17 vacant buildings downtown are in the process of being restored. Three more have been purchased. In the last year, five antique shops, two art supply stores, two gift stores, and a newspaper/gourmet coffee operation have opened.

So far, the revitalization of Newberry

hasn’t translated into huge sales increases at Turner Jewelry. “When performances are taking place, I’m closed.”

But the new stores draw traffic downtown, and “my business has picked up a little bit,” says Turner. “You’ve still got some apathy, but nothing, nothing, nothing like it was four or five years ago.”