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Arts & Entertainment

In Denton, New Life for an Old Theater

The entrepreneurs who brought the Texas Theatre back to life in Oak Cliff see a similar future for the Fine Arts in downtown Denton. So does its City Council.
Denton's Fine Arts Theater, which recently received $1.6 million in tax incentives to bring it back to life. Yohan Ko

In 1935, when the Texas Theater replaced a furniture store in what is now downtown Denton, the city’s town square consisted of a two-story brick courthouse, a row of storefronts, and little else. The theater’s building predates the city’s existing courthouse by five years, and eventually rebranded as the Fine Arts Theatre in 1957.

Since its closure in 1981—and a fire the following year—the structure has essentially sat empty as Denton’s downtown square has grown up around it with shops and restaurants and bars. Used only sporadically for church services or meetings, a critical piece of the city’s history has sat derelict for over four decades. Earlier this month, the Denton City Council approved $1.6 million in tax breaks to help turn the lights back on, bringing back a redevelopment effort from 2018 that cratered under the immense amount of money it would take to fix up the space. 

“If you Google Denton, the Fine Arts Theater is going to come up. It’s a kind of cultural, iconic building,” says Assistant City Manager Christine Taylor. “It’s sitting with a low tax base for the city. It’s not activated.”

One of the partners involved in reopening the theater has been in this situation before, just 40 miles south in Dallas. Jason Reimer was a founding partner with Aviation Cinemas, the entity that turned the similarly-derelict Texas Theatre—built by the same architect, W. Scott Dunne—on Jefferson Boulevard in Oak Cliff into a cultural institution. Denton-based NorthBridge Realty Holdings bought the Fine Arts property in 2018 and engaged Reimer to handle its programming and operations. The building is in rough shape, and the money didn’t pencil until the City Council came to the table with tax incentives.

“Whenever it was raining outside, it was raining inside,” says Brad Andrus, a principal at NorthBridge. Post-COVID, the costs of the repairs soared even higher, says Reimer, which made the challenge “insurmountable” for a time. 

Current plans are to have a 200-seat main theater, a 30-seat mezzanine on the second floor, and a 50-seat private theater, with a bar on the second floor overlooking the town square. Reimer will handle operations and help inform the redo. His partner in Aviation Cinemas, Barak Epstein, will help review the technical aspects of the building and be involved as they move forward on the project.

Approaching the old box office of the Fine Arts, the vacant theater in downtown Denton. Yohan Ko

This arrangement was what Andrus and his partner, Alex Payne, wanted all along: a buyer who would honor the building’s legacy. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find someone who was willing to activate the space in a creative way while also making the money work.

“I remember showing one guy in particular that…was not from Denton, but he met me and kind of looked around the square,” says Andrus, who then asked the prospective buyer what he would do with the property. “It was kind of the last straw for me. He was looking around, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t know what I’m going to do with it – probably some sort of retail.’” Andrus says the buyer took another look around and added, “I don’t see a Dollar Store here on the square.”

Andrus didn’t sell. Good thing, because today the theater sits inside a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or TIRZ, which is a mechanism for the city to give tax breaks to a developer’s project, so long as they meet certain criteria. NorthBridge will need to generate at least $5.8 million from “non-city sources” to be eligible for the incentives.

“[When you have] something beloved, something iconic, something that fulfills the key priorities and missions of the city and how it views itself, that’s a place where, maybe, typical underwriters can’t step in to fill the gap, but the city can,” says Council Member Brian Beck, who represents downtown Denton. He said a tour of the interior motivated him to find a way to get the renovations moving. “You could see its former glory and the iconic posters still on the wall from its heyday. You could see what was left of [the] mezzanines and balconies and imagine the kind of theater it had been.”

Reimer says Denton’s investment in the project goes beyond economic encouragement. “It’s architectural preservation. That’s what these buildings really are,” he says. “We’re trying to create businesses that will preserve the building so it can be used for what it was originally intended for.”

The plan is to make necessary repairs while maintaining the building’s traditional look and feel. “The original architecture leans kind of heavily Southwestern, so the inside of the building, the theater, will kind of feel like the inside of a terracotta pot,” says Reimer.

Recognizing the building’s historical roots in Denton was important to the project from the start. Local artist Martin Iles, once a square-dweller who founded the Good/Bad Art Collective more than 20 years ago, worked on the project in its early days, compiling details on the theater’s past. Part of his research still lives on Facebook from when the project began in 2018.

Reimer has leveraged his expertise from working with the Texas Theatre, as well as the work he’s done with Talented Friends, a creative production company he co-founded, to help paint a picture for what the venue can be. The idea isn’t dissimilar to that of the Texas in Oak Cliff: a space for film screenings and concerts, as well as a hangout before or after the shows.

Taylor, the assistant city manager, sees an impact beyond its old walls. She envisions theatergoers eating and shopping in the vicinity before and after events. The city’s research estimates an annual revenue boost of over $20 million to neighboring businesses.

The city worked with an underwriter to find an incentive structure they felt comfortable with, and then outlined contract terms that would be beneficial for Denton while also incentivizing the building’s owners and operators. 

After moving the proposal through a series of boards, Taylor says the feeling in the room was overwhelmingly positive when it went before the Council. “It was a moment that really reunited our community and our council. We had a 7-0 vote, which is unique, to have everybody excited about this one project.”

Reimer and Andrus say that they currently anticipate construction to take between 12 and 15 months. They hope to have the Fine Arts Theater operational in the summer of 2025.

“I lived in Denton for a decade before I came to Oak Cliff,” says Reimer, adding that he had been trying to find a way to start something up in the Denton Fine Arts Theater long before he became involved with the Texas Theatre. Reimer is quick to point out that this finally coming together is thanks to the efforts of Andrus and Payne over the last several years. “Those guys largely deserve an enormous amount of credit for sticking it out… They’re not theater operators or owners normally, but this is purely through their persistence.”


Austin Zook

Austin Zook