Imogene Theatre is still up for sale. What that means for downtown Milton development
One year after first being put on the market, Milton's historic Imogene Theatre still sits empty — but stakeholders have high hopes that if and when the right buyer comes along, the entertainment space could prove transformative for downtown Milton.
The 8,000-square-foot building centrally located on Caroline Street was put on the market in February 2020 with a listing price of $995,000. The building, constructed in 1912, is owned by the Santa Rosa Historical Society and has a rich history as an entertainment venue that has hosted concerts, theatrical performances, weddings and other events for more than a century.
The historical society wanted to sell the building to a buyer who would preserve its history and continue using it as an entertainment space, promoting and energizing Milton's downtown scene.
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But then, in mid-March 2020, after a month of being on the real estate market, pandemic-related shutdowns began. Potential buyers chilled at the idea of investing in a gathering space during a time when large gatherings are actively discouraged, said John David Ellis, owner of Voyage Real Estate and the listing agent for the Imogene.
“We initially had a significant amount of interest when we listed the building just prior to COVID,” Ellis said. “And then, of course, with the advent of COVID, selling a live performance venue kind of became a challenging thing.”
Ellis said he's seen an uptick in interest in recent weeks as positive vaccine news bolsters the economy and provides a glimmer of hope for the future. Potential buyers, he said, have come largely from within the Milton community and are people who know and understand the venue's rich history and want to keep it alive.
The Imogene was once the cultural hub of Santa Rosa County, bringing in such acts as Hank Williams, Hank Locklin and Minnie Pearl in the 1940s through the 1960s. As recently as 2018, it brought in Confederate Railroad and LeAnn Rimes. However, in 2019, the historical society opted not to renew the contract of the theater's directors, and the building has sat largely dormant since then.
In addition to the theater upstairs, the Imogene also has a downstairs area that could be converted into a bar and restaurant or other retail space.
“I think everyone we talk to recognizes the historic significance of the theater, and everyone we talk to wants to preserve that,” Ellis said. “The challenge is just, how do you build a business around a property like that in the midst of COVID?”
Imogene could spur downtown development
COVID isn't the only concern potential buyers have when eyeing the Imogene, Ellis said. Though the city of Milton has been heavily investing in its downtown area for the better part of the past decade, it still hasn't reached the "tipping point" of being a bustling economic hub similar to downtown Pensacola.
But Milton's sleepy downtown has been steadily gaining momentum. Such restaurants as Boomerang Pizza, Scoops Ice Cream and Sweets and Blackwater Bistro help draw diners to the downtown area, and the Brew Angels and Beardless Brewhaus breweries have brought the popular craft beer scene to Caroline Street.
The city also has taken several steps to breathe new life into its old historic streets, including allowing a developer to transform the historic Berryhill school into trendy studio apartments, and advertising bids for a multi-million dollar riverfront redevelopment project along the Blackwater River just minutes from downtown that could break ground as early as this fall.
Plus, the courthouse relocating from its nearly 100-year-old downtown location to its new Avalon Boulevard location has ignited imaginations for what could be done when the centrally located building is empty.
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“I think there are a few critical things that are happening right now,” Ellis said. “Obviously, there’s the courthouse (moving), and that’s been a big topic of conversation in selling the theater. People want to know what’s going to happen across the street. … And the city just put out an RFP (request for proposals) for the frontage along the Blackwater River. I think those are all positive things, there’s some synchronicity with those things happening together that absolutely could entirely transform downtown Milton.”
The city’s economic development director, Ed Spears, said the courthouse moving out of downtown could bring a whole new vibe to the area in terms of new types of businesses and activities that occupy the historic storefronts. He envisions Milton following a similar trajectory as Pensacola did more than a decade ago when its downtown area began to transform.
“Downtown Pensacola used to be full of law firms, and, if you remember, downtown kind of rolled up the sidewalks at 5 p.m. and everyone went home,” Spears said. “What we see today is retail, entertainment and restaurant uses and you’ve got that good mixture. … When you look at retail use versus office use, it changes the hours of the day people are coming down there. We might not become a 2 a.m. kind of community, maybe a midnight community, more family oriented. But still, you definitely don’t want to be a 5 p.m. community where everybody goes out to the suburbs and no one is downtown.”
If the Imogene is bought and revived as an entertainment venue, it could attract more restaurants for people to grab dinner before the show, or bars for people to grab drinks afterward. Those types of businesses could, in turn, attract more retail and residential spaces, all connected and fueled by events at the Imogene.
Ellis said it will take a “pioneer” to breathe life back into the Imogene, but he envisions it happening as part of the city’s bigger plan.
“One thing that I try to promote as a real estate broker is that downtown Milton is to Santa Rosa County what downtown Pensacola is to Escambia County,” he said. “I mean, there’s nothing like downtown Milton in all of Santa Rosa County. I think oftentimes, downtown gets overlooked for the beaches and that sort of thing, but so many people that live in Santa Rosa County would love to not have to drive to Pensacola to have that downtown experience. They want to have it right there in Milton.”
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.
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