Clear Space plans $8.8M performance center for 2021 groundbreaking
REHOBOTH BEACH — Clear Space Theatre Company has spent this summer working behind the scenes on plans for its $8.8 million new performance space that would open more space for its programs.
Despite some reservations of what the future may hold for the arts scene, Clear Space Executive Director Wesley Paulson said he remains hopeful to break ground on the two theaters in 2021.
“It’s been an exciting project, and it’s become more exciting because of COVID-19. But the feedback we’ve received during our silent campaign stage is encouraging,” Paulson said. “It may be at a slower pace, but we’re cautiously optimistic.”
The nonprofit theater company secured a $4.8 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the project, pending outstanding environmental assessments. So far, Clear Space has raised about $600,000 and Paulson plans to approach potential financial backers in Wilmington this fall.
Plans show that Clear Space proposes two structures: a 256-seat traditional theater and a black box theater called “The Spotlight Theater.” While the Spotlight, a 50-seat theater, would be used for rehearsal, Paulson said it would be possible to use it for more intimate shows.
Clear Space has an average attendance of 60% at its current location at the former Epworth United Methodist Church property on Baltimore Avenue, and the audience gets smaller for shows with sensitive topic matters.
The Spotlight building would also have practice rooms, a gift shop and a studio for children’s shows, which would also allow for 50 seats. That means this new theater would have capacity for 356 seats, well outshining the 196 seats at its current location. Paulson said that neither the Spotlight Theater nor the children’s studio would host events at the same time as the traditional theater.
This project has been a long time coming since Clear Space had first proposed building a theater in October 2018. The company’s 10-year lease will be up for renewal on Dec. 31, 2020, so it took a cue to start looking at other options.
“As our programs have grown, our space here is limited in everything – from rooms to restrooms to storage to seating arrangements. We’re even limited in accessibility for those with mobility issues,” Paulson said.
Clear Space did consider one existing location on Route 1, the main highway between Rehoboth and Lewes, but it would have needed heavy modifications to make it work. Instead, the theater company opted to build a space to fit its needs.
The first plans included a 25,600-square-foot building but were scuttled over issues to meet parking space requirements. Instead, Clear Space officials reworked the project to split the structure into two buildings without any parking provided.
“Zoning has been our biggest challenge, because with the variances we needed with that project, it would not have worked with the public. We went back to the drawing board for a redesign, and that took a year,” Paulson said.
In the meantime, Clear Space bought 413, 415 and 417 Rehoboth Ave. for $2.1 million in January, 7% less than its value when it was last listed at $2.27 million in 2016.
Two of the three buildings were demolished in May right before Rehoboth Beach issued its annual building moratorium. The third – 413 Rehoboth Ave. – remains standing since it was deemed historically significant as one of the last examples of a beach bungalow-style housing in the city.
Clear Space – whose budget breaks down to 70% earned income (ticket sales and performance contracts) and 30% donations and grants – plans to kick off a capital campaign for the remaining $4 million in early 2021. In the meantime, the company has signed a memorandum of understanding with Rehoboth Beach to hold next year’s season in the Rehoboth Beach Convention Center.
The Rehoboth Beach Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the theater on Aug. 14.
By Katie Tabeling
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Clear Space was planning for a 2022 groundbreaking. It is planning for a groundbreaking in 2021. We regret the error.