HIGH SPRINGS, Fla. — After years of deliberation, High Springs is inching closer to the long-awaited decision to close the Priest Theater permanently.
The theater, characterized by its old-fashioned, cozy atmosphere, welcomed new and old residents alike. Since its temporary closure during COVID-19, the city has been at a crossroads of whether or not to re-open it.
The impending verdict has sent shockwaves through the tightly-knit community. Many residents are faced with a sense of loss as they grieve the departure of an institution deeply woven into their lives.
“There’s a lot of special memories I have going on dates there with my girlfriend, who’s now my wife,” said Anthony Paparella, manager of the Great Outdoors.
Built in 1910 by W.J. Priest, the theater started out as a car dealership. A few years later, the institution was turned into a cinema. It was popular even to non-residents.
Sierra Henry, employee of a local boutique, visited the theater throughout her young adulthood, from the age of 15 to when she had her first child.
“I grew up in Old Town, where there was not much to do,” said Henry, 31. “My roots are really in High Springs.”
The local worker recounts some of her fondest memories to have taken place at the theater, noting the last movie she watched was from the projection room.
“I remember it was the second Monsters Inc… I went with my husband and they let us go up since it wasn’t a busy night. I loved it,” she said.
The decision to close the theater permanently arose in 2020, after it temporarily closure during the pandemic.
City officials have defended its impending closure, citing how costly it would be to restore and refurbish the building. They argue that while Priest Theater holds undeniable sentimental value, the city must adapt to shifting demographics and fiscal constraints.
“We would need $1 million in funding for the effort of supporting the building,” stated Vice Mayor Ross Ambrose. This would not include the other costs necessary to bring the building back to life, he added.
In response to the closure announcement, residents have gone above and beyond in an attempt to save the cherished establishment.
“My husband is a part of a committee, Heart of High Springs, that’s dedicated to saving the theater,” 52-year-old Reva Huey stated. “They recently organized a mural project that highlighted the theater’s history.”
The mural project, arranged by a group of artists called Walldogs, consisted of five paintings in areas around the city – the theater being one of them. The painting highlights the theater’s history.
As the final act approaches for Priest Theater, discussions of its future continue. Officials have considered a variety of options for its redevelopment, ranging anywhere from an event venue to an art gallery.
“There’s many models around the state where governments have worked to ensure buildings have a new life,” said Ambrose. “I think it’s gonna be really important for the community to have some input.”
The property is set to be appraised within the week, which will determine the trajectory of the establishment.
Regardless of the outcome, the legacy of this historic theater will persist in the hearts and memories of High Spring’s residents, serving as a testament to the ever-evolving dynamics between preserving heritage and adapting to a transforming urban landscape.
“It holds a lot of good memories – I would hate to see it go,” Henry said.