InVin working to reinvent Pantheon as co-working space
By Mike Grant
When you have the oldest Main Street in Indiana, sometimes you have to come up with new ways to make the aging buildings vital again. That is something Vincennes has been working on for a long time and that is why the community is hoping that it may finally have a plan that can successfully put new life into the historic Pantheon Theater.
The Pantheon opened in 1927. It was a regular stop on the vaudeville circuit and hosted the Marx Brothers, Duke Ellington and Will Rogers.
It also brought a young comic named Ed Wynn to town. Wynn famously purchased all of the newspapers a boy was selling on the street corner and invited him back to be a guest at the show. The boy was Red Skelton and Wynn took him onto the stage. Skelton said it was then that he decided he wanted to be a performer.
That history is good, but history has a way of leaving buildings old and out of date and by 1961 the once regal Pantheon was converted into a retail store. Eventually the retailers went out of business and what was left was an historic building with a rundown interior and despite efforts to get it rebuilt, little future.
Now, though the building is owned by a community organization called InVin and there are plans and backing to bring a new and different look and purpose to the old Pantheon.
“We are working with the city and county to restore it as a business theater with working space and a business incubator,” said InVin Board member Tony Burkhart.
“The Pantheon is going to be totally different,” added InVin Executive Director Ellen Harper. “We are going to turn it into a co-working space.
“There are about 50 of them around Indiana and they are very popular with a lot of younger people who are looking for a place to develop or do business.”
The co-working, incubator space will include amenities like wi-fi, fax machines, small office space where people can work. The project will also have sponsors that can help young business hopefuls work their way through the intricacies and challenges that come from taking an idea and turning it into a success operation.
“We will also have speakers come in once a month to talk about specific issues,” said Burkhart. “It could be a CPA to discuss things like taxes or an attorney to help explain corporations.”
Getting the project going will require the Pantheon to go from an old worn-out theater to a much more usable facility.
“The theater is still pretty much a shell,” said Harper. “The plan includes redoing the stage to make it an area of its own. It is large enough; it can be its own training area.”
“We will also do some restoration of the theater seating for larger sessions,” said Burkhart. “The balcony will be available for meetings also.”
The business end of the theater will be in the mezzanine areas where office space will be added to handle the day-to-day co-workers and business builders.
There have been plenty of dreams about the restoration of the Pantheon.
This project is different because it has backing from the business community and the City of Vincennes and Knox County.
“This is about the future of Knox County and Vincennes,” said Mayor Joe Yochum. “The co-working space and the incubator is a great place for our young people to work and to develop new business and grow. This is a great way to help these people get going and once they do that, will be great for Vincennes.”
Vincennes and Knox County have a working agreement to try and bring the funding that will get the building in shape and provide the structure that will allow the Pantheon to operate. Already a USDA grant of $100,000 was acquired to put a new roof on the building. The county has applied for a $500,000 grant with the Office of Community and Rural Development to fix and stabilize the facade and an additional $500,000 grant application is being readied for other work on the building, along with another $100,000 grant from USDA.
“When this project was first presented to me my initial thought was that I was interested but skeptical that it would work,” said Knox County Council President Bob Lechner. “What got the county on board was the way this is going to be leveraged and working with Purdue University Foundry program. The coalition has broadened to include the city, county, Vincennes University, InVin, Purdue, and at least 50 area businesses that have pledged at least $1,000 apiece or more over the next five years. That is the kind of collaboration that makes this a worthwhile project.”
Keeping local talent
Vincennes and Knox County area officials have reached out to other incubator, co-working sites around the state. Communities like Fishers, Lafayette and Huntingburg are all reporting success in bringing in young people who are working and developing ideas.
“This is a chance to get local talent to stay here and develop small business and grow,” said Yochum.
“The incubators are the bread and butter of this,” said Lechner. “We see this as a form of economic development. It’s just like getting involved in an industrial park. In the long run, you want this to produce jobs in the community.”
He points out the connections with Purdue hold tremendous potential for the Pantheon project.
“Purdue will have researchers at the Pantheon,” Lechner said. “It makes sense to believe that will generate growth that will help Knox County. We are partnering with Purdue University which is number one in the country in commercializing intellectual research property. We will be a franchise of the Purdue Foundry and all of its properties and facilities. We are also building strategic alliances with our neighboring counties and this project could even connect us into the developments at Crane.”
Of course all of those connections and opportunities cannot happen until the city and county get the money flowing. Organizers have a plan of work that will cost around $2 million.
“Half of that will fall on the city and half on the county,” said Yochum. “We are seeking grants and a number of businesses have already made donations. We are working on a time frame. I’d like to see this start to move forward in early 2018.”
“This building has been empty for the better part of 50 years,” said Harper. “It’s a great building. I don’t want us to lose it. This project is very 21st Century. It is the way things are going. It is a great re-purpose of a great building. We can keep some elements and still make it viable for use now and well into the future.”
The Pantheon, which used to cater to youth, with the Saturday matinées, under its new plan would be open to anyone with a student I.D.
“They will be able to work with entrepreneurs,” said Burkhart. “We want the kids to get to know them. We even have a group of 30 Pantheon Angels lined up to look at the projects that are developed with the possibility of financing them.”
While the plan won’t turn back the clock on the Pantheon and turn it back into a grand old theater, it holds the potential to gracefully return it to life, putting a fresh idea into a redeveloping historic downtown and giving a new purpose to an aging star.
“I’m excited to see this activity in downtown,” said Harper. “It’s exciting for Vincennes as a whole.”
“I’m excited about what it can do for Vincennes and Knox County, our youth staying in Knox County and growing in Knox County,” added Yochum.
And if it all works out perhaps there can be a new chapter added to the legend of the Pantheon. One where someone tells the story of how they came up with a love for a new successful business that was nurtured in the same building that once inspired Red Skelton to become a performer.