Incline Theater opens June 3, setting the stage for further redevelopment in Price Hill

They remember the date exactly: Feb. 29, 2012.
It was the day three years ago that this bunch of dreamers — Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ Tim Perrino, Doug Ridenour and Rodger Pille — first imagined a theater set atop the hill in East Price Hill’s Incline District. Landmark already was producing theater at the Covedale Center for the Peforming Arts and on the Showboat Majestic.
The spark was a news report: The latest project for the site, a medical office building championed by then-developer/now-Mayor John Cranley, had fallen through for good. A couple days later, Perrino, Ridenour and Pille had breakfast at Price Hill Chili with Cranley and two of his partners.
“The idea was born,” Perrino says.
Shortly after the breakfast, Landmark’s board agreed to spend $10,000 to explore the feasibility and cost of building a theater in place of the office building. There were plenty of obstacles to raising money for the land and building, but it wouldn’t hurt to explore. In a journey of 1,000 steps, they weren’t even at step one, says Ridenour, president of Federal Equipment Company and board president of Cincinnati Landmark Productions.
If an answer was “no” at any step, the theater was done.
“Every time we got to something where, if we don’t get this support or this grant or even this opportunity to make this proposal, we’re dead,” Perrino says. “And every time we’d get the opportunity, we’d get the support.”
Support from the nonprofit Cincinnati Development Fund (CDF) was critical early on. The organization pledged a $6 million allocation of New Markets Tax Credits, the funding mechanism 10 times more in demand than supply.
“We were willing to do this because we believe so strongly in the future of Price Hill,” says CDF Executive Director Jeanne Golliher. “It was just a no-brainer. They had the track record, and they had had the support. We know the quality of the shows.”
Along the way, the state of Ohio added a $550,000 capital fund grant, the city of Cincinnati added $2 million for a parking garage, Warsaw Federal bank purchased naming rights and hundreds of other donors stepped up.
Now the men are focused on a new date: June 3, 2015, opening night for Cincinnati’s newest performance space, the 229-seat, $6 million Warsaw Federal Incline Theater. The Producers is nearly sold out for its three-week run. Tickets for the two other “Summer Classic Series” shows, 1776 and 9 to 5, are more than 80 percent sold. A four-show “District Series” — with titles like Rent and Glengarry Glen Ross — opens in September.

Showboat Majestic had run its course

The Incline Theater’s “Summer Classic Series” replaces the old Showboat Majestic summer series, which Landmark produced for 23 years.
All the great things happening on the Riverfront and at The Banks weren’t good for the historic Showboat. Noise from concerts and fireworks were a problem, and parking for patrons was becoming scarce.
“That is great for the city, but we saw the writing on the wall,” Ridenour says.
“You could look down the road and say there would be a time, and it could be coming soon, that we are going to be relegated back to being a one-venue operation (Covedale Center for the Performing Arts) when we had been a two-venue operation,” Perrino says, Landmark’s artistic director. “We like being a two-venue operation.”
Perrino and his team were beginning to look down the road. The idea of a new theater at the Incline site was appealing. It could capture the loyal Showboat audience, attract a new audience and help the company expand artistically.

The arts as economic development driver

The new Incline Theater and adjacent city parking lot are bound by Price Avenue, Mt. Hope Avenue, West Eighth Street and Matson Place. Across Matson Place from the theater sit Queen Towers with its Primavista Restaurant and the relatively new Incline Public House, a bar and restaurant with an expansive deck. Between them is a small public space, Olden View Park, commemorating the Price Hill Incline that operated from 1874 to 1943.
The site is five minutes by car from Downtown and 15 minutes from Hyde Park, with a spectacular view of the city skyline and the Ohio River.
“It’s going to be a regional draw that will bring renewed vibrancy to Price Hill,” CDF’s Golliher says. “We see that area as one of the most dynamic in the Cincinnati region.”
The medical office building on that site likely wouldn’t have been the development magnet to attract people from across the region. It also likely would have been a Monday-to-Friday daytime operation.
The theater, on the other hand, will be open at night and on weekends. There’s a good chance that bars, restaurants, cafes and shops for theater patrons will spring up around it.
“If you think about what has happed in Over-the-Rhine in the last 10 years, it’s all because of the anchor institutions — the opera, symphony, Music Hall, Memorial Hall, SCPA (School for the Creative and Performing Arts), Ensemble (Theatre) and Know (Theatre),” Golliher says. “Arts are very often anchor institutions for investment in community. Even when you just have a strong artist community, you can see that happening on a smaller scale.”
What Golliher is describing, creative placemaking, is part of a significant national trend. In Cincinnati, it’s a growing part of CDF’s portfolio of loans and grants.

A brand new landmark

Thirteen years ago, Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ forerunner organization was running the Cincinnati Young People’s Theater and the summer Showboat Majestic Series when it decided to buy the old Covedale Cinema on Glenway Avenue in West Price Hill. They were rescuing a landmark to turn it into a performing arts center.
Ridenour, board president since 2001, says, “That was crazy at that time, too. We took possession at the end of May. Seven weeks later we put on our first show.”
What’s happened at the West Price Hill location in the years since — increase in surrounding property values, improvement in safety, reinvestment in the neighborhood and a strong customer base (44,000 tickets sold last year) spending money before and after shows — helped sell people on the idea that Landmark was the right group to build at the Incline site.
“We said, ‘Don’t fund us because we make great art on stage. We think we do, but look to the Covedale as an example of what’s happened in that business district as an example of what we happen here,’ ” says Pille, Incline Theater project manager.
The new theater’s stage sits on the exact spot where Rees Price’s home was built in the mid-19th century. Price helped build the old incline, and all of Price Hill takes its name from his.
“We didn’t call it Landmark by mistake,” Perrino says. “This is a whole new neighborhood that’s blooming. We want to be part of it.
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Julie Engebrecht is a Cincinnati writer, editor, strategist, collaborator, project leader, connector and coach with a long journalism career, most recently in arts writing and news editing at The Cincinnati Enquirer. You can follow her on Twitter at @jengebrecht.