Bowed ceilings, dead birds, ghosts of the past and holes in the floor fill the city-owned building.

Older than the Johnson County Courthouse, the structure once housed a private detective’s office, at least two pharmacies and other tenants long since forgotten. Now it collects dust and awaits the next chapter.

Cleburne City Council members voted in August 2007 to purchase the downtown building for $150,000. The building last housed Royce’s Best Value Pharmacy, then remained vacant for several years.

City leaders planned to renovate the building into a performing arts center. A project Cleburne voters approved — along with six others — when they voted to establish the Cleburne 4B Economic Development Corporation in 2001. A one-half-cent sales tax increase, approved in the 2001 vote, funds the 4B projects.

Although plans call for the performing arts center to be used by multiple organizations for various purposes, The Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players, a playhouse, will be one of the center’s main users.

Council members said, when voting to purchase the building, that a performing arts center on the downtown square would help regenerate traffic and interest in the downtown area.

Complications arose when officials learned the structure might not be suitable for use as a theater, after the city had purchased the building.

A short time later, council members voted to combine the performing arts center project with the renovation of the Cleburne Civic Center, another 4B project. Work on that project, located at the site of the old civic center on West Henderson Street, began in October.

No decisions about the best use of the old Royce’s Pharmacy Building have been made. A possible suggestion involves using the locale as a temporary site for a railroad museum, yet another 4B project.

The city will find some use for the building, city leaders said, but some people wonder if the city may have rushed in and bought an unnecessary, potential money pit before gathering all the facts.

“Would we do it again knowing what we know now?” former Assistant City Manager Adam Miles said. “Probably not.

“The city didn’t waste money though. They just tied it up in a building for a few years. A building that can still be used for multiple things or can be sold or traded.”

The city will find a use for the building, or get rid of it, Mayor Ted Reynolds said.

“If I have anything to do with it, we’ll use it for something or sell it,” Reynolds said. “We don’t want to be in the real estate business, and it’s not acceptable to me for it to just sit there. But I do think there was due diligence done” before the city purchased the building.

City Manager Chester Nolen agreed.

“We will develop it for use, or we will sell it,” Nolen said. “Plans [for using the building] are up in the air. We have some possibilities, but nothing definite has been decided.”

Purchase of the building, Nolen said, was not a mistake.

“There’s not any blame on the deal,” Nolen said. “The situation at the time Royce’s was purchased was that the civic center was not yet an option.”

The original plan

Wording on the 4B proposal residents voted on called for city funds to furnish a space usable for a performing arts center. 4B funds would pay for renovation and maintenance of that space.

“The original intent was to renovate the old Esquire Theatre, which is what people voted on and approved at the time,” Miles said. “The city owned it at the time, and it would’ve cost about $250,000 to bring it up to a minimal standard and hand it over to 4B.

“But that building ended up having major structural damage so it was torn down instead.”

The idea to buy Royce’s came about through Carnegie members, Miles said.

“They knew the building was for sale,” Miles said. “They went in and took some measurements, talked to 4B members and pushed for the site because it was downtown and they thought it had the space they needed. And $150,000 wasn’t a lot.”

Carnegie and 4B member Jeff Dugger agreed.

“It seemed like a great opportunity,” Dugger said. “$150,000 seemed cheap for a downtown building and a great investment.”

An inspection of the building was done, Miles said, to inspect the floors, roof and check for asbestos.

“Well, I guess we acted pretty quickly,” Miles said. “The whole time Carnegie Players said [Royce’s] would work.”

An architect brought in after purchase of the building determined that the maximum number of seats the theater could hold was 175, Miles said. Which would leave little room for a lobby, or backstage area.

Carnegie wanted 299 seats, Miles said. That number represents a “royalty break,” Miles said, which affects the royalty price paid by theaters to stage a show.

“After we bought Royce’s, the architect did a layout and determined it would cost $1.1 to $1.2 million to renovate it to have 175 seats,” Miles said. “Which is 50 more seats than at the Layland Museum [Carnegie’s current home] and still 125 away from their goal of 300.”

Joining the civic center

The idea to meld the performing arts center and civic center projects occurred, Miles said, when he made an offhand remark to that effect while looking at proposed plans for the civic center.

Carnegie, 4B and city officials responded favorably and the council voted to do just that. Work on the civic-performing arts center is under way and expected to be completed some time in 2009.

“The whole time I’d thought they [Carnegie] really wanted a presence downtown,” Miles said. “But Jeff [Dugger] said they just wanted a usable space and the idea gained momentum from there.”

One of the architects on hand when Miles suggested combining both projects took out a sharpie, Dugger said, and drew a rough idea of a performing arts center added on to plans for the civic center.

“It just seemed an obvious architectural compliment to the civic center,” Dugger said. “More state of the art, a nicer place that will serve the community for a long time.

“Royce’s would’ve been adequate. It’s just that this opportunity happened to come along that everyone thought made sense.”

Miles agreed.

“We could’ve built a theater in Royce’s; it was possible,” Miles said. “But the thought was, why spend this wad of cash to get 50 more seats when doing it at the civic center would be better and eliminate those problems of space and seats?”

Suitability of the civic center location, not cost, was the deciding factor, Reynolds said.

“We thought the deal [buying Royce’s] would’ve worked at first, and it would have,” Reynolds said. “I don’t want to make excuses or have people think we changed horses midstream. But it’s not because it would cost too much to fix [Royce’s]. Any building’s going to cost to fix.

“It’s just that we found a better idea for the performing arts center, which left us with a building for now.”

The city has spent about $175,000 on Royce’s, Miles estimated. That includes $150,000 purchase price and about $25,000 for asbestos removal. No 4B funds have been spent on the building, officials said. The city owns the building and can use it for anything, Nolen said, not just 4B projects.

“It doesn’t have to be used for 4B,” Reynolds said. “But I don’t know what else we’d use it for.

Using the building for anything, except possibly storage, will be expensive.

“It would cost just to bring it up to current standards to use as an office building or some other use about $1 million,” Miles said.

That includes work upstairs, wiring, ADA compliance and other items not specifically tied to a theater, he said.

Reynolds said he wasn’t sure how accurate the $1 million price tag is. Councilman Bob Force also said he’s not sure if renovation costs would run that high.

What about

the Railroad Museum?

One possible suggestion involves using Royce’s as a temporary railroad museum. Temporary because local railroad enthusiasts said the site is unsuitable for a permanent museum. For one thing, they hope to have outdoor displays or rolling stock, rather hard to accomplish in the middle of downtown.

The idea instead is to use Royce’s as a storage place, not open to the public, to store and catalogue railroad memorabilia to be used in an eventual permanent museum.

Michael Percifield, vice president of the American Historical Railroad Foundation opposed the idea.

“I understand their intentions,” Percifield said. “But the problem I see is that to bring it up to code as a storage facility to be used temporarily would be a waste of money by the city and 4B I think.”

Money better spent on the permanent railroad museum, Percifield said.

The question of what the city can use the building for or if it can unload a building in need of major renovation remains.

The idea to use Royce’s, at least temporarily, remains on the table, said Assistant City Manager Rick Holden. A Railroad Museum Advisory Committee, appointed by 4B, plans to discuss possible locations and other specifics regarding the museum.

The committee will probably meet several times over the next few months then report their findings and recommendations to the 4B Board, Holden said.

The city budget includes $150,000 to begin the museum pending council approval, Holden said.

He said Royce’s would require a significant capital outlay to meet minimum code requirements even for a temporary use and parking is limited.

“We’ll try to get the best deal for our citizens if we sell it,” Reynolds said about the possibility of recouping what the city paid for the building. “If we can’t get fair market value, we’ll wait and use it for something in the interim. We don’t want it to just sit there.”

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