Last week the owner of the Smithtown Performing Arts Center building put it up for sale, leaving the future of local entertainment in the town in jeopardy.
“We need to keep this historic building in the town, and not only do we want to buy the building, we want to bring the building back to how it was before.”
— JoAnne Romanelli
Soon after the building at 2 E. Main St. was listed, a GoFundMe page was initiated by the SPAC board of directors to avoid the possibility of it being purchased by private investors. JoAnne Romanelli, secretary of the not-for-profit SPAC, said the board of directors is hoping to raise $400,000 to put a down payment on the building that is listed at $1.6 million.
“We need to keep this historic building in the town, and not only do we want to buy the building, we want to bring the building back to how it was before,” Romanelli said, adding that SPAC is under new management as well as having a new board of directors.
After only being up a few days, the GoFundMe has already garnered $4,500.
“People have been so loving and giving, and we’re so grateful for that,” she said.
The building which houses the center was once a movie theater. It first opened its doors in 1933, and it operated as such until November of 2001. Live performances began in the theater in 2002. The building, which has not been significantly altered aesthetically in nearly 90 years, is owned by Ken Washington, the former managing and artistic director of SPAC.
Washington said in a phone interview that for the last 15 years he has advocated for the building “to be publicly owned — either owned by the not-for-profit or by the town or by the historical society — so that the building could live in perpetuity to be what it is and what we created back in 2002, when my wife and I renovated it and restored it and created the performing arts center.”
“I’m retiring. I’m 66 now, and I am putting the building up for sale to whoever wants to take it forward.”
— Ken Washington
He said unfortunately it’s something the previous and current board as well as other potential owners have been unable to find the means to do.
“I’m moving on,” he said. “I’m retiring. I’m 66 now, and I am putting the building up for sale to whoever wants to take it forward.”
Washington said he’s pleased with what he, his family and the center have accomplished since 2002.
“I’m proud of the legacy that I’ve left there,” he said, adding selling was a decision that he had to make in the best interest of himself and his family.
The property is being handled by New York Commercial Real Estate. According to the listing, the theater seats 360 people and the taxes are more than $21,000. The real estate company’s owner Jack Jawdat said in a phone interview that the building includes the theater and two storefronts, one which the center currently uses and the other a shoe repair shop. Jawdat said while he has received a few calls about the property, there have been no serious offers.
The center hasn’t had a yearly lease in three years and has been operating with a month-to-month lease, Romanelli said. According to the board member, the owner agreed to lower the rent for SPAC during the pandemic. She said then full rent would be expected once things returned to normal. However, Romanelli said Washington recently wanted back payment on rent.
Washington subsequently issued a statement to TBR News Media: “Smithtown Performing Arts Council is currently operating with an expired lease and is in arrears with regard to past due rent. Nonpayment of rent and termination of tenancy notification has been proffered to the tenant. The building at 2 East Main Street is for sale.”
“We support the organization’s efforts to ensure the building remains a theater, and have been in constant contact with the board to help in achieving this mutual goal.”
— Ed Wehrheim
Romanelli said that the SPAC board members hope their fundraising is successful and their top priority is to serve the community and actors.
“This is a new board,” she said. “This is new management. We’re going to take it to a whole new level.”
Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) said the town supports the board’s efforts.
“Our main priority is preserving the Smithtown Performing Arts Center and the incredible arts programming the community has enjoyed through the generations,” he said. “We support the organization’s efforts to ensure the building remains a theater, and have been in constant contact with the board to help in achieving this mutual goal.”
Romanelli added that the board is made up of all volunteers who are committed to restoring the building.
“This is our passion project,” she said. “We are committed to the town and investing in Smithtown. We’re committed to our community, and we’re committed to being fiscally sound.”
Romanelli said the board is in the process of writing grants and planning fundraisers to continue SPAC’s role in providing educational programs for children and affordable theater for the community.
“We’re doing everything possible to save this building and to bring it back to its original historic beauty,” she said. “That is our mission.”