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Harlem still working to renovate 1940s Columbia Theater

Harlem Theater

The city of Harlem wants to bring a historic theater back to life. (WRDW-TV / Sept. 1, 2011)

News 12 at 6 o'clock / Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011

HARLEM, Ga. -- Harlem is the birthplace of Oliver Hardy but it's also the home of the first movie theater in Columbia County.

The Columbia Theater was open from 1949 to 1963 and now the city wants to bring it back to life.

It's a project that's been in the works for years and one that's slowly getting closer to becoming a reality.

The city has redone the roof and marquee of the theater, but now it needs money to gut the inside and start over from scratch.

Taryn Morris works across the street from the old Columbia Theater in Harlem.

"Looking at it, it's like there so much potential. It's a beautiful sign, lights up at night, looks great, but that's it, there's nothing else to it," Morris said.

Morris supports the city's plan to renovate the building into a performing arts center.

"Being a dance teacher, I love having somewhere to go to have our dance recitals because right now we have to go downtown," Morris said.

City Manager Jason Rizner said he's hopeful for the renovation.

"It's a very large project and something that we think will be very worthwhile and wonderful for the city," he said.

The outside may look shiny and new, but inside and up the stairs, the city still has a lot of work to do.

"We're going to have to completely gut the interior of the building," Rizner said. "It will be a complete interior renovation."

Over the years, the theater floor has been raised and leveled for retail businesses. Upstairs, the projection room still stands and a few original seats still decorate the inside.

"There's a lot of history behind it, it would be great if someone could take it on and to redo it and turn it into something," Morris said.

The city also just acquired the nearly 1-acre piece of land next door. A historical home sits on the lot right now.

"There are a world of possibilities there. There's an old house on the property now that would need substantial renovations if it was to be used," Rizner said. "Just to have a venue like this downtown that will draw people like this in the evening and while they're here they'll support the local businesses and restaurants."

Morris likes the plan.

"This is where I grew up, I was a Harlem Bulldog and I would love for the money to come back here to build up the community and build up the city even more," she said.

The city says money is the biggest obstacle for the theater renovation. They're looking at some low-interest loan options, but say the project won't be possible without some private donations as well.

They also plan to bring in some University of Georgia graduate students to help design some plans. The fate of that historical home will eventually be up to Harlem's Historic Preservation Commission.

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