- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

LONDON, Ohio (AP) - An empty whiskey bottle props open a window of the condemned building, and a drug user’s spoon and makeshift pipe litter the front entrance.

It’s an unwanted snapshot of this Madison County city - empty storefronts, unemployment, substance abuse and blight - and part of a scrapbook that leaders are trying to close.

The government seat of the county, known for its farming heritage, is struggling to find itself. And Rob Treynor, a 45-year-old laid-off journalist, hopes that movies in a remodeled, 79-year-old State Theater will help.

Across the street from the condemned building and a row of closed businesses along Main Street, carpenters are building a small cafe in the lobby of the freshly painted theater, which closed two years ago. Upstairs, Treynor rummages through boxes, where he finds posters for vintage movies that once played there, including the 1936 comedy Earthworm Tractors.

If his strategy prevails, families will fill the 240-seat theater by early August. Teens, including Chris Childers, will take in a matinee.

The 17-year-old Childers was kicked out of London High School for fighting and threats this year. His T-shirt tells the story: “I tried to be good. But I got bored.” He, like others in the city, wants more to do.

The closest theaters, he said, are in Hilliard or Springfield, about 30 miles to the east or west, respectively.

Treynor spent about $20,000 of his own money to upgrade the theater. He owns everything inside but is to make payments for 15 years on the $200,000 building, which he will then own. A fundraising campaign, completed earlier this month, brought in $40,000, enough to buy a digital projector - required to screen the newest Hollywood movies.

“When the theater closed, it took with it a lot of traffic, and with it, a lot of businesses,” said Treynor, who lost his job with the Madison Press two years ago. “It’s so bad out here that even the tattoo parlor closed.”

Barber Ernie Lee blames technology, including Netflix, for the decline of the theater and other entertainment in the town of about 10,000 residents.

“I think that small-town USA is gone, brother,” Lee said. “Nobody gets out and walks the sidewalks like they used to, to be human.”

But Mayor-elect Patrick Closser is hopeful.

“Within the past six months to a year, we’ve gotten together a core group that really wants to better the downtown,” he said.

The county hired David Kell to head the Community Improvement Corp. and Chamber of Commerce. “Everyone has their own thoughts on what the community should be,” Kell said. “We want to keep that heritage with the farming community, but we want to see success like what Delaware is seeing. And that means investment and jobs.”

By collecting delinquent income taxes, the city wants to create a fund to help small businesses spruce up their storefronts. City leaders are still working out details, but entertainment is crucial, they say.

“There’s something about going to the theater and walking the downtown,” Kell said. “I feel it’s going to bring traffic. They’re going to see what’s going on and how some storefronts may need a little bit of work. It may get people thinking about the opportunities that may be there for them.”

Nancy and Larry Dever recently moved back to London after living in Virginia for 30 years.

“The downtown is suffering. And it breaks my heart,” said Mrs. Dever, who recalled attending movies here in the 1950s. “I grew up here in a downtown that was thriving.”

Treynor invited her to peek inside the theater. “Oh, my goodness, I’m so excited,” she told him. “You have our respect and our support.”

Mrs. Dever’s encouragement appears to be matched by the donations.

The Indiegogo crowd-source funding campaign collected money from more than 200 people. The largest donation was $3,000, but most donations were small. Other people just wanted to volunteer their time.

“We’re kind of out here in the middle of nowhere as far as Hollywood is concerned,” Treynor said. “But there’s a real clamor and a need … for some sort of entertainment.”


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com

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