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Needed renovations take centre stage at Imperial Theatre

Cathy Dobson Theatre Sarnia is counting on raising more than the curtain this year.
Workers take out a wall in the lobby of the Imperial Theatre, which is undergoing major renovations. Photo courtesy, Brian Austin Jr.

Cathy Dobson 

Theatre Sarnia is counting on raising more than the curtain this year.

The community theatre group needs to raise about $250,000 to cover the remaining costs for the first phase of renovations at the Imperial Theatre, as well as an unexpected heating-cooling unit breakdown.

It’s been 23 years since the building was transformed from an abandoned movie house into a successful 600-seat centre for the arts. The renovations are overdue and fundraising is critical, says executive director Brian Austin Jr.

The first phase was scheduled this summer during the few weeks of the year when there are no shows, he said.

Workers arrived July 29 and began punching out walls to move the box office to the front foyer area and install new fully accessible washrooms on the main floor.

The women’s washroom is being moved to the building’s north end and more than doubling in size.

“It’s nice to bring the washrooms up to match the elegance of the rest of the theatre,” Austin Jr. said.  “We’ve been talking about doing this for years.”

The original restoration didn’t expand the size of the cinema’s washrooms, so accommodating 600 people during an intermission is a challenge, he said.

“We’ve got a new floor plan that makes much better use of our space.”

Theatre Sarnia has judiciously set aside about $500,000 in proceeds from its shows for renovations, but was blindsided in March when the building’s HVAC system quit.

Parts are impossible to find, Austin Jr. said.  So a new system is going in this summer too.

Together, the projects will cost almost $1 million. Grants have already been approved including a $150,000 Trillium Foundation grant, a $10,000 Sarnia Community Foundation grant and $5,000 from Lambton County’s Creative County fund.

And about $40,000 has been donated since a $1.5-million campaign launched earlier this year.

Theatre Sarnia was financially prepared for the first phase but needs to accelerate fundraising efforts to pay for the new HVAC system. Going forward, there are several more phases of renovations planned to replace the seats, improve the sound system and finish upgrading the roof.

“I think we’re important enough in people’s lives that they understand the importance of their donations to the Imperial,” said Austin Jr.

“Theatre Sarnia has contributed and now we want the community to help us out.”

The theatre is primarily volunteer driven and has managed to pay off its mortgage and operate in the black without government assistance.

“I think we’re in good shape.  This is a beautiful venue to showcase the talent we have in Sarnia. It’s just that the HVAC failure surprised us,” he said.

A direct mail campaign is planned in the fall to season ticket holders and past donors.

Donors can also contribute to the capital campaign online at

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