Restoring Loveland’s heartbeat

When Phil Farley pulled up outside the newly remodeled Rialto Theater for a meeting one night in early March, he found himself getting a bit emotional.

Looking up at the three-story building from his parking spot on Fourth Street, Farley could see through the windows that city officials, council members and friends were gathered in the brand-new conference room. They were sipping drinks, talking and laughing in the space they had together created.

“It looked just like the architectural rendering,” Farley, the director of community relations for the Loveland Community Foundation, said. “This was so important for the revitalization in the community of Loveland. It was a beautiful sight.”

If all goes as hoped, more “beautiful” sights are coming to Loveland, though at the moment, walking through the streets of downtown, it’s clear a lot remains to be done.

Rehabbed buildngs — like the restored Rialto — sit next to still-sagging storefronts with dated signage and décor.

Loveland, however, has been working hard over the past couple of years to move beyond its past and embrace the future.

This heightened commitment to growth and progress is evident in Loveland’s public and private sectors alike, showing up in remodels, renovations, restorations and brand-new construction projects scattered throughout the downtown and surrounding areas.

There is no doubt that this city, founded in the 1870s, is heading fully into the 21st century.

Farley has been an active community member since he moved to Loveland to work for Hewlett Packard in 1978. But the Rialto renovation project was a first for Farley, both in magnitude and emotional investment.

It’s easy to see why.

Built in 1920, The Rialto has been a community centerpiece for more than 80 years, serving as a theater, a movie house and even a flea market. When the city purchased the building in 1987, it was rededicated as a venue for live performances and movies.

Although the space was well-loved and utilized, the historic building was not without significant limitations. Unequipped for the crowds that modern Loveland brought in, the stage had tiny dressing rooms and no storage areas, and the single bathrooms made for a congested lobby and incredible lines at intermission.

If the building was going to keep up with growth, an expansion was inevitable.

And so began the Rialto Bridge Project. In an equal partnership between the city and a private developer, and with the purchase of two buildings to the west, the building has been expanded to a 20,000-square-foot, three-story, full-fledged performing art center, complete with a restaurant, offices for rent and a community meeting room.

“The Rialto was a wonderful performing arts center that was historic and had always been very nice,´ said Loveland Mayor Cecil Guiterrez, “but with all the additions, it’s (now) the jewel of downtown. It just needed that sparkle, and now it’s really the diamond in the ring.”

The “bridge” in the project title is relevant to both the vision for the structure and Loveland itself. Named after the Rialto bridge in Venice, which functioned to bring all different sides of the population together, this architectural aspect to the theater is purely symbolic.

“The idea is to bridge gaps in the community, to be a place where large groups from all over Loveland can be brought together, to encourage dialogue,´ said Farley. “And that’s a real value in our community.”

But it’s more than that.

Downtown Project Manager and City Planner Mike Scholl said the Rialto underscores Loveland’s commitment to making improvements in its core.

“The project shows that we’re serious about downtown,” he said. “The first projects are the most difficult, and come with the most risk. I think now we’re poised to be a big place of growth in the region, both residential and commercial.”

Indeed, the Rialto is just one of many investments Loveland has made into its downtown in recent years. A library remodel, expanded city center, posh new apartment buildings, a proposed museum renovation and the revitalization of several business facades are just a few examples of the facelift the city has begun.

The decision to invest tax dollars into the city center was several years in the making. Surveys done by the Downtown Loveland Association all revealed that downtown was an area the majority of residents supported maintaining. A belief so strong, they were willing to spend long-collected tax dollars to ensure its completion.

“The one thing we all share is downtown,” Farly said. “Everybody comes to downtown, because they have to. Whether it be for the museum, the Rialto or the government offices, not any other single neighborhood has that mass appeal. It’s part of the community that everyone can benefit from the renovation of.”

The location to invest in may have been clear, but the timing — smack in the middle of one of the worst recessions the country has seen — was slightly less obvious.

Thanks to its Capital Expansion Fees Program, the city has been collecting a few dollars from all new development projects since 1984. Part of the city’s “pay as you go” development model, revenue from the CEFP was set aside for the proverbial rainy day. With a drop in construction costs and the need for job growth brought on by the recession, that rainy day had arrived.

The Chilson Center renovation and the library expansion were accomplished using CEFs, and about $497,000 was used from the cultural services CEFs to do the Rialto Theater Center.

As with the Rialto project, the public sector doesn’t have the resources to renovate other parts of downtown on its own and it will need the help of private investors to keep up the momentum.

Michael and Heidi Thrash are doing their part.

The couple moved from Seattle to Loveland to open a coffee shop in 2006. They were young idealists, in search of a small town and sunshine.

Coffee Tree, the shop they opened inside the Anthology Bookstore, quickly became a Loveland favorite, and it wasn’t long before an expansion was necessary. And then it wasn’t long before another expansion was necessary.

“Our sales have already grown 30 percent since our second expansion last July,´ said Michael. “It’s ironic because we’ve had our best growth during the rest of the country’s recession.”

While its clientele spans the generations, Coffee Tree is a hub to the twentysomethings of Loveland. They are a demographic largely missing from other parts of the city, as the majority of young adults seem to leave Loveland to find opportunity. The mayor believes with continued innovations and business growth, that could change.

The Thrashes have decided to expand once again — with their eye on a storefront just down the street from the Rialto. They may be leaving behind Anthology, but they’ll never leave downtown.

“Downtown Loveland is a wonderful place if you can carve out a niche for yourself with quality and community,” Heidi said. “The city will absolutely die-hard support you to the end. We see a lot of the same people here every single day.”

Mayor Guiterrez, a former educator, knows how important people like the Thrashes are to his city.

“As a teacher I saw smart, intelligent, creative young people that thought that they had to get out of Loveland to pursue a career,” he said. “I want Loveland to be that city where young people can see it as a place to grow and thrive and stay and raise their family.

“I want to see creative people not feel like they have to leave.”