Reno Executives Take First Step Towards Lear Theater Buyout Proposal

Artown has finally found a buyer for the long vacant Lear Theater.

Reno City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved a preliminary deal that will see City Hall snatch the keys to the famous downtown landmark, which has been closed since 2002.

Artown, a Reno-based nonprofit that hosts a citywide arts festival in July, bought the historic 82-year-old theater in 2011 – only to find it didn’t have the money to fix it.

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City leaders also don’t have around $ 10 million needed to set up the iconic white-columned building, although they have offered a few ways to find the money.

Mayor Hilary Schieve suggested applying for grants to help revitalize the Lear, an effort she warned wouldn’t be over overnight.

“We’ve been talking about this for a very long time,” said Schieve. “I hope people will understand that this is a really, really huge business. … I don’t want people to think that (the Lear’s) are going to be restored tomorrow.

The Lear Theater on July 20, 2021.

The two-term mayor then approved Councilor Devon Reese’s proposal to rename the Lear to Paul Revere Williams, the black architect who built it.

She also agreed with members of the Artown board who sought to keep the building a performing arts space.

Others want the city to keep its options open.

City Councilor Jenny Brekhus, who represents the neighborhood where the Lear is located, said she would like staff members to report a final deal that would give Reno the option to rent or reuse the building at a later date.

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City Councilor Naomi Duerr, a former member of the Artown board of directors, agreed.

“I was an advocate for the building to come to the city because I knew it was a big financial venture,” Duerr said ahead of Wednesday’s vote. “I felt like even if (the city) didn’t have the money immediately, we would end up doing it.

“There was a conversation about the sale, which worried me. … But I have become a little more comfortable with the idea. I think it’s still worth discussing.

The Lear Theater in Reno on July 20, 2021.

Brekhus went on to recommend that the city gradually pay for Lear’s multi-million dollar overhaul, via six-figure payments subject to annual council approval.

City leaders have not specified when their deal with Artown could return for the final vote.

The arts organization has made several recent attempts to sever ties with the Lear, including last year’s stalled effort to fund theater upgrades with a 50-unit apartment complex to be built just to the east of the building.

Image of Lear Theater in Reno on July 20, 2021.

But such proposals tended to come with many conditions attached by Artown, who repeatedly insisted that the use of the building be kept in accordance with the wishes of its namesake, local patron Moya Lear, who died in 2001.

This is not the case with the nonprofit organization’s latest attempt to get rid of the property.

Artown’s board on Saturday passed a resolution that, among other things, would offer the Lear to the city without any explicit restrictions on its future use.

In return, Artown would retain at least one access to a parking lot adjacent to the theater, as well as up to half of the proceeds if the property is repaired and sold. The group also wants to use the theater free of charge for up to 12 days a year.

City council members did not dispute any of these conditions before approving an initial deal to take back the Lear.

James DeHaven is the political reporter for the Reno Gazette Journal. It covers the countryside, the Nevada legislature and everything in between. Support his work by subscribing to RGJ.com right here.

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Ethel Nester

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