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Local News

Rialto faces big repair bills

Theater officials say there is no money for projects

JOLIET – The Rialto Square Theatre faces about $1 million in repairs – some the building manager said are needed just to keep the building safe.

At the historic theater, built in 1926, the big public issue in recent months has been what a new marquee should look like.

But the theater faces big bills to keep chunks of its outside walls from coming down, maintain a chimney that has been falling apart and keep the boilers running in the basement to make sure the place is heated.

General Manager Randy Green said the Rialto does not have money to pay for the repairs and the only answer is to begin a new capital campaign to raise funds.

“We’re at the end of a $5 million capital campaign,” Green noted. But the Rialto may have to start a new one, he said.

The last of this capital campaign’s money is going into the $2.2 million in terra cotta work now being done. As it turns out, about $800,000 is needed to finish the job.

Building Manager Mike Biedron laid out the to-do list at last week’s meeting of the Will County Metropolitan Exposition and Auditorium Authority, the board that oversees the Rialto.

‘Paying the price now’

Biedron at times described unsafe conditions in the building and more than once suggested a history of deferred maintenance because of the Rialto’s ongoing budget challenges.

When one of the two boilers used to heat the building broke down recently, it likely was because of the use of low-cost maintenance alternatives, Biedron said.

“I’m going to guess that years ago there was no money for boiler treatment, and we just deferred it,” he said. “We’re paying the price now.”

Biedron asked the board to buy a water softener, which would improve the condition of the water running through the boilers. The softener being used now, he said, was bought at Menards, and Biedron said the Rialto needs a commercial grade softener.

“This is a $1,200 solution, and we can do the install on it,” Biedron said.

It was the one item on his list that did not cost much.

$2.2 million not enough

The biggest problem is the condition of the terra cotta that decorates the Rialto’s outside walls.

The very visible work being done now involves scaffolding, netting and plastic wrap surrounding the theater.

It’s not just a beautification project. The work became urgent a few years ago, when a large section of the terra cotta fell off the building onto the sidewalk overnight. The $2.2 million project already underway was down-scaled by $400,000 because of a lack of money.

Now, Biedron said, the crews doing the work have discovered new problems in terra cotta not scheduled for replacement. Pieces are splitting in half from the inside, creating a safety hazard.

“I’ve been telling you this for five years now,” Biedron said. “You have a problem out there.”

It will cost $400,000 to replace the deteriorating terra cotta. But the Rialto has the option of spending $26,000 to put up netting, which Biedron described as “chicken wire,” and plastic wrap to keep the pieces in place and the sidewalks below safe.

Biedron said the less expensive option should be good for a couple of years.

“It just depends on what you want to look at,” he said.

That may be what theater-goers look at for a while. Green said there was no contingency money available. He suggested finding money for the low-cost option may be challenging.

“We don’t generate additional revenues for capital improvements,” Green said later.

In a pinch, he said, the Rialto dips into operating funds to pay for capital costs. But even to pay for operations, the theater depends on a $600,000 annual subsidy from the City of Joliet.

Crumbling chimney flue

When faced with the challenge of paying $200,000 to repair the Rialto chimney, Green told the board, “I suggest we park this project at this point in time until we find a resource for it.”

Biedron said the chimney should be good for the remainder of the winter. But he said as much as 12 feet of debris from a deteriorating metal flue had fallen down the chimney before it was cleared away.

The problem, he said, is that the metal flue is falling apart and needs replacement.

“It was at a point where it was going to become dangerous to the occupants of the building and the patrons of the theater,” Biedron told the board. “At this point, it doesn’t seem to be crumbling at the rate it was before.”

Biedron’s comments seemed to strike a nerve with Board Member Cynthia Tyler, who said the chimney flue repair “has to be a priority when we do the budget in July. We have to find a funding source or we have to budget for it.”

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