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Georgia Theatre owner, a Gainesville native, waits for next move

Building was in 'great shape' before fire

POSTED: June 22, 2009 10:56 p.m.

As Athens community members and music venues pull together resources to help accommodate this weekend’s AthFest after Georgia Theatre burned Friday, federal and state fire officials are waiting on a crane to begin searching the building.

"Right now all the investigators are meeting to lay out their plans for entering the building; they haven’t made entry yet," said Chuck Gulley, Athens-Clarke County’s emergency management director. "They’re waiting for a crane to take a closer look at the debris inside."

Local fire officials, the state fire marshal’s office and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agents are slowly investigating to ensure parts of the building won’t collapse when they enter.

Wilmot Greene, Georgia Theatre owner and Gainesville native, is playing another kind of waiting game. He’s trying to figure out what to do next.

"The real shame for me is how close I was to getting the business to run smoothly, so close to it being a world-class venue," Greene said Monday. "It had all of the history to be one but needed a lot of work, and it was pretty much done. The building was in great shape, maybe even better than it was since the 1930s."

Greene has spent more than $700,000 on renovations since he took over ownership of the theater on Lumpkin and Clayton streets in 2004. Renovations included installing new balcony seats, painting ceiling tiles, rewiring power to the stage, improving the sound system, adding more lighting, revamping the bar area and complete remodeling of the bathrooms.

"It would be easier to tell you what we didn’t fix," Greene said with a laugh. He ran into community members around downtown Athens on Monday and told them he would update as soon as possible. "No one has been in the building; no one knows anything yet."

The historic building dates to the 1890s, when it was a YMCA. It served as a motel, temple and furniture store before being converted into a movie theater in 1935, then a music venue in 1978.

Although the theater, which once was a stage for the B-52s, R.E.M., the Police and even Greene himself, burned Friday, plans quickly shifted for this weekend’s AthFest music festival. All concerts will now be held at the Morton Theatre on West Washington Street, and all other June and July concerts will now take place at the 40 Watt on West Washington Street.

Today, Athens bands The Whigs, Dead Confederate and The New Familiars will perform a benefit concert at the Melting Point, with proceeds going to staff of the theater. Perpetual Groove, slated to perform at the theater the night it burned, held a benefit concert on Saturday at the Classic Center. The Georgia Theatre Web site is selling T-shirts to help the staff that are now jobless. "Built to Last ... We Shall Return" is printed on the back.

"There are a lot more questions than answers right now and we will do our best to keep the public informed as we learn more," the theater’s Web site reads. Greene said Monday he plans to post a news release on the site early this week to update fans.

Athens-Clarke County officials discussed whether the fire will affect plans to build a parking deck next to the theater.

"Right now we don’t think it will have an impact on the plans and recommend the mayor and commission to go ahead with the vote" to approve a partnership with private developers, said Ken Crellen, an Athens-Clarke County SPLOST project administrator.

Allen Nivens, who graduated from Gainesville High School a few years after Greene, finds his time on the Georgia Theatre stage even more valuable.

"Playing a gig there was special at the time, but it’s exponentially special now for us to have had the opportunity to play there," said Nivens, a commercial and acreage specialist for Norton Commercial Group. Nivens and three other Gainesville residents played at the venue several months ago in his self-titled rock band, the Allen Nivens band.

"Knowing who all has walked out there, whose drops of sweat have spilled on the stage, it was cool to share that and play at a good venue with other greats," Nivens said. "I sent Wil an e-mail on Friday, knowing how busy he must be."

Nivens said he remembers Greene playing in bands around Gainesville, especially Northern Lights and Ashtray. "Those were a mainstay at a lot of the local places here," he said. "He only played at the Georgia Theatre one time, I think, but he was a really accomplished guitarist."

Greene graduated from Gainesville High School in 1988 and played in the band Only for Tomorrow before studying at the University of Georgia. He played in Northern Lights during college, which landed shows at the Georgia Mountains Center and played at the Monkey Barrel every Thanksgiving eve for more than a dozen years.

"It was like a huge family and high school reunion each year," Greene said.

The band also played at Georgia Theatre, marking one of Greene’s favorite memories there.

"Northern Lights played there for Halloween in 1993 or 1994, and it was really crowded — one of my biggest shows as a musician," he said. "I remember being pumped and recording my first demo there. My personal history is in that room, and I’m just one of thousands with that same story."

After college, Greene moved back to Gainesville and played in the band Ashtray before returning to UGA for graduate school, where he worked at the Georgia Theatre as a security guard. After four years as a cartographer in Charlotte, N.C., Greene returned to Athens and took over the theater in 2004.

"I have one of the best jobs. It makes you feel young, and you’re surrounded all the time," he said. "Everyone seems to be behind us on this, it’s really great."



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