Walk into the building at the corner of Galena Boulevard and Stolp Avenue in downtown Aurora and you will see a cavernous area, filled with demolition equipment, hard hats, construction dust and plenty of cold steel poles. That’s what remains of the many walls that once formed classrooms in this old Waubonsee Community College campus.
Take a tour of these three floors, now under renovation, with Paramount Theatre President Tim Rater and Shannon Cameron, who recently was hired as director of education and community engagement at the Paramount, and one will begin to envision the future of Aurora.
Over the next year this 80,000-square-foot building, purchased for $350,000 by Invest Aurora, the nonprofit development arm of the city, is being transformed into the $35 million Aurora Arts Centre. It will include an art gallery, fine dining restaurant, dozens of apartments for working artists, a rehearsal space for Paramount performers and perhaps most important, a 25,000-square-foot performing arts school that if all goes as planned will bring thousands of people to downtown Aurora, particularly young families, on a regular basis.
With Rater, the mastermind of the phenomenally successful Paramount Theatre, at the helm of much of this project — he will oversee the commercial end — it’s easy to see the possibilities, even before the construction dust has settled.
Perhaps most exciting to those of us clamoring for more downtown dining options, a huge chunk of that first floor — in the corner facing Stolp and Galena — will become a 4,000-square-foot fine dining restaurant that according to Rater just went on the market Monday but already has attracted plenty of “interested parties.”
Also on that first floor will be 8,000 square feet of much-needed rehearsal space for Paramount performers (Copley Theater was workable but far too small), as well as four guest apartments for those out-of-town stars performing at the Paramount. Another 38 apartments on the third floor will offer affordable housing to artists who qualify.
And, coming off Stolp will be a 1,000-square-foot storefront gallery. Farther south on that same street will be the entrance to the lobby of what so far is being called The Paramount School of Performing Arts.
In addition to a lobby and lounge area, the first floor of the school will feature a seated balcony, where parents can watch their children perform in the lower level on a 2,200-square-foot flexible performance area that also contains retractable seating.
“We are,” she said, “going to be making some noise.”
And, no doubt, lots of synergy.
Rater oversaw a similar school in Arlington Heights before joining the Paramount, which he said brought in a couple of thousand people a day. This Aurora project, however, is four times that size, so it’s not hard to imagine how that kind of traffic can be a game-changer for this city.
Cameron, who has been meeting with dozens of community leaders since she arrived here from Lincoln, Neb., during the summer, plans to hire only top-tier teachers for the school that will offer classes, private lessons and camps in acting, music, comedy and dance.
At the same time, the school is committed to being accessible and affordable to all students who are interested in the arts, she said, including those with disabilities and from low-income families.
Classes for children as young as 6 months will be offered, but there also will be opportunities for adults of all ages, even seniors, Cameron said.
The goal is to have the restaurant and apartments open by fall 2018, with classes at the school to begin in January 2019 — all part of the vision Rater came with when he arrived seven years ago.
The Paramount’s current production “Elf the Musical” on Monday passed “The Little Mermaid” as its highest-grossing production, he told me. And Rater seemed just as proud that on Classic Movie Monday at the downtown theater, “White Christmas” had a surprising 1,300 people in attendance, another record number.
“We have all the momentum in the world,” he said. “It’s working because people want to be here.”