A boost to Ro-Na renovation

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 13, 2024

$2.73M grant will improve iconic Ironton theater

The long road to renovating the Ro-Na theater in downtown Ironton got a big boost on Monday when it was Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Development Director Lydia Mihalik announced that the theater would be getting $2.73 million grant to continue renovations and improve the old theater.

“We are super, super excited, it is a game changer” said Rick Jansen, president of the Friends of Ironton, the group that has spearheaded the effort to restore the Ro-Na into a center for arts and activities in downtown Ironton. The group applied for the funds from the Appalachian 

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Community Grant program. “We were totally unsure if we were going to get it, but we were hopeful. It has been 16 years that we have been working on this project and we want to be able to complete it.”

The Ro-Na theater built in 1949 and promoted that it, not only showed movies, but had air conditioning, a rare thing back then. It was shut down in 1973 and used by various businesses, including an auto parts store that closed in the 1990s before it sat unused. Over time, the roof fell in and allowed the weather to destroy decorative murals on the walls.

In 2008, the building was deeded to the City of Ironton, which after much debate, took possession of the building because of its iconic appearance in the city. The goal was to turn it into an arts center.

Since then, through the hard work of the Friends of Ironton, the roof has been replaced and the interior renovated with a stage and spotlights. An area was carved out to be used as a bar area.

In 2014, for the first time in four decades, the neon lights of the Ro-Na sign shined over downtown Ironton again.

The building has been used for shows by bands and comedians, wrestling events, film festivals, and in July 2014, the neon lights and marquee was ablaze as people came to the Ro-Na to see the premiere of Ironton native Mickey Fisher’s sci-fi television drama “Extant” on CBS. It has also the central gathering place during the annual Ironton Wizardfest in the fall where stars of the movies tell of their time on sets of the Harry Potter movie series.

Jansen said the money will be used in several ways, including insulating the building, putting on a hard roof and finishing the interior to make it more attractive and functional so that more people would want to rent it for events like weddings or class reunions.

“This will allow us to market the building to so many more groups,” he said. “People have wanted to rent it in the past and they saw that it was still in pretty rough condition, so they walked away from it. But we are excited to get this thing finished up.”

Things they want to make the building more comfortable and user friendly is different lighting packages, insulating the walls, putting seating in the balcony area. The main floor will still be open seating so the venue can be adjusted for the need of different events. 

Jansen said they hope that in the future they can hire staff to manage the day-to-day operations of the building.

“We’ve had to turn down opportunities because we just don’t have the staff to set up for events and then take it down and clean it up,” he said. “There is a lot to it. We are still all volunteer, but that has got to change once this is up and running. We are going to have to have a manager and some operations people.”

The grant was part of the State of Ohio’s $500 million Appalachian Community Grant program with funding coming from the from the American Rescue Plan Act, a COVID-19 relief bill, passed by congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021. The Ohio General Assembly allocated more funds for the initiative.