Nonprofit group continues efforts to preserve Ioka in Exeter

Union Leader Correspondent
July 31. 2013 8:33PM
A message on the marquee outside the Ioka theater in Exeter reveals the offer being made by Alan Lewis to members of the Exeter Theater Company. (JASON SCHREIBER PHOTO)

EXETER — Members of a local nonprofit group formed to save the Ioka theater say they hope that a deal will be reached with its current owner, Alan Lewis.

"We remain optimistic because the community still wants the Ioka to remain a theater and Mr. Lewis is aware of this. Cultural restoration efforts like this take time.

The Music Hall in Portsmouth took 18 years," said Adam Roberts, project manager for the Exeter Theater Company.

The theater company hopes Lewis will gift the theater to the group, but at this point the curtain remains closed on the 98-year-old theater that shut its doors in 2008 amid financial troubles.

The most recent proposal from Lewis was an offer to sell the Ioka to the group for $400,000, which is $200,000 less than what he paid when he bought it at a foreclosure auction in 2011.

Lewis, a Kensington resident whose family is well-known for its philanthropy, bought the Ioka in the hope that it would be restored and reopened as a community-run theater.

The first written communication the theater group received from Lewis was in January 2012 when it launched a drive to attract 1,000 members who support the effort to preserve the theater."

That letter stated that were we to be successful in getting 1,000 people to sign up as paid members, the theater would be provided to the Exeter Theater Company under a 99-year lease at $1 per year. We exceeded this goal, bringing in just over 1,400 paying members," Roberts said.

But the sticking point came when Lewis informed the theater company that he wouldn't turn over control of the building to the group until it raised $3.5 million for needed renovations.

To "break the logjam," Roberts said the theater company proposed that Lewis enter into an option agreement allowing the group the opportunity to buy the theater for $600,000.

"The agreement gave us a window of three months to raise the money — a difficult timetable for any organization, particularly one with a single part-time staff person and an all-volunteer board," Roberts said.

The group raised more than $150,000, but Roberts said that when the time came to put down a nonrefundable deposit of $60,000, its members decided not to "risk the money generously given by hundreds of individual donors should we fail to raise the money needed to purchase the building."

"Since then, we have received a number of communications from the Lewis family that they have no interest in owning or leasing the building," Roberts said.

The theater company is now asking that Lewis consider gifting the theater to the group, which Roberts said is in line with their original arrangement in 2012.

"We are in discussions with several potential partners and donors about working out an arrangement where Mr. Lewis feels confident of our fundraising prospects going forward," Roberts said.

Lewis could not be reached for comment this week, but in a letter published through an advertisement in The Exeter News-Letter on July 19, he said the next owner would have to invest a minimum of $4 million to renovate the building.

In that letter, Lewis wrote, "As a result, there needs to be a well-financed and viable plan in place for the restoration and operations of the Ioka building for its long-term success."

Lewis also emphasized that his family has no long-term interest in owning the Ioka.

"From the beginning, our desire was, and continues to be, to see this vintage building restored and in service to the community," Lewis wrote.

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