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WHEATFIELD – A $350,000 grant from a Niagara County agency Monday is the first major step toward realizing a $4 million plan to enlarge North Tonawanda’s historic Riviera Theatre.

The grant from Niagara County Brownfield Development Corp. will pay for the demolition of a former auto repair shop behind the Webster Street theater and the cleanup of the lot where it is located.

James Pritchard, technical and facilities director of the Riviera Theatre and Organ Preservation Society, said the eventual plan is to construct a dramatic modern second entrance to the theater off Main Street.

Five years ago, the society bought the former Competition Transmission, 68 Main St. The crumbling building right behind the Riviera contains mold and asbestos, and the ground beneath it is contaminated with oil and gasoline, Pritchard said.

That makes it a brownfield, eligible for help from the county’s brownfield agency, which provides grants and loans with money the county receives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“We’ll be able to use that $350,000 to leverage other funding. We’re going to be very aggressive,” said Gary J. Rouleau of J. O’Connell & Associates, the Riviera’s grant-writing firm. “This was the first big step. Some of the funding sources wouldn’t go forward until the site was cleaned up.”

Pritchard said bids will be sought as soon as possible for the demolition and cleanup of the transmission shop site. The building originally was erected in the 1930s as Lampe Motors, a used-car dealership, and before that, there was a gas station at the site, Pritchard said.

The $4 million project, whose costs include demolition and cleanup at the Main Street lot, calls for not only a new entrance, but major improvements inside the Riviera.

Pritchard said the not-for-profit society envisions a small “black box theater” inside the building for performing arts groups whose events wouldn’t come close to filling the Riviera’s 1,200 seats. “It costs us $400 just to turn the heat on. It’s not worth it for us,” Pritchard said.

There are no showers in the dressing rooms, meaning that the theater cannot host any shows whose cast belongs to the Equity union, which requires showers. Those would be added during the planned improvements. The theater also needs better restrooms, a bigger lobby and an elevator to the balcony, Pritchard said.

Rouleau said $203,000 in grants from the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation have made a new marquee possible; it is to be installed this spring. Also, a recent $300,000 grant from the John R. Oishei Foundation allowed for the purchase of new stage rigging.

Brownfields Development Corp. is governed by a board headed by Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield. Its president is county senior planner Amy E. Fisk.

The agency has funded cleanups such as Dussault Foundry in Lockport, the former missile base in Cambria and Youngstown Cold Storage.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com