The "State Theatre/Michigan Downtowns Project," an initiative to offer start-up funding for efforts to revitalize derelict, depressed downtown theaters across Michigan, is borrowing on a familiar theme — helping communities help themselves.
Filmmaker and Traverse City Film Festival co-founder Michael Moore said he will use the estimated $650,000 to $1 million in state film tax credits he expects to receive from his Traverse City-based production "Capitalism: A Love Story" to get things started.
The aim is to jump-start efforts to reopen vacant theaters, give a boost to those that are open but struggling, and even create downtown movie theaters where none exist.
The true keys to the effort, besides start-up grants, are that the theaters would have to become nonprofits and the operators will learn about the volunteer system that has so helped the State Theatre. The use of volunteers has been a key to revitalization efforts since the start.
Before Moore, photographer John Williams and writer Doug Stanton conjured up the Traverse City Film Festival in 2005, a multi-year effort to restore the State was stalled, even after the community poured tens of thousands of dollars into the cause.
The festival made the theater its home base, and it was busy again — at least during festival week.
In 2007, though, things changed, big time. Rotary Charities essentially gave the theater to Moore and the festival, and he and others spent more than $300,000 to restore its faded glory.
The difference, however, was thousands of hours of volunteer labor. Dozens of people offered their time to do the grunt work, the cleaning and hauling and getting dirty that made it go.
When the amazing rebirth was done, the volunteers kept coming. Many people donate time at the State during the year, doing everything from selling popcorn to picking it up off the floor.
During the film festival, the sixth edition of which wraps up today, more than 700 people volunteer their time to be ushers, work the concession counter or the box office, do the heavy lifting behind the scenes and drive people around.
It's fair to say that neither effort — the daily operation of the State or the festival — could happen without them. Sure, there are some paid positions for both the year-round operation of the State and the Film Festival, but the volunteers are the engine.
It's that sense of ownership that will decide the success of the Michigan Downtowns Project. If a community embraces the idea and follows the nonprofit and volunteer model that has been established here, it can work. Traverse City has seen what can happen when the community steps up.
Look around today at all the folks sporting their "staff" T-shirts and think about what wouldn't happen without them. That's ownership, and that kind of ownership makes things happen.