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PC purchase of Capitol Theatre potential pacesetter

The Capitol Theatre, seen here on a past snowy day in Laurens, will get a new life with its purchase by Presbyterian College.

Laurens Mayor Nathan Senn believes the partnerships behind Presbyterian College’s purchase of the Capitol Theatre in Laurens could serve in the future as a model for small communities attempting to build their futures while paying homage to their pasts.

PC President Matt vandenBerg, Senn and other local leaders announced that PC had purchased the Capitol, moving a small bit of its footprint to Laurens for the first time while creating a performance, film and eSports venue.

“The public, private, higher education, public education and municipal partnership for this is the only one of its kind in the nation,” Senn said. “I think about the potential for small towns across the state of South Carolina and other higher education institutions and the potential for us to serve as a model for how you can bring back an historic theater because every small town has got one.”

PC President Matthew vandenBerg

PC will run the Capitol without the specter and need for profit hanging over its head while getting exposure for its performing arts programs and eSports teams off campus.

Once renovated – a project expected to be completed by the time PC students arrive for the 2022-23 academic year – the Capitol will also host eSports teams from Laurens County School Districts 55 and 56 and Laurens Parks and Recreation.

The City of Laurens and PC will also be able to host other events such as concerts and theatrical productions. The theatre’s café will be privately operated.

“There is no question about it that these are challenging times for higher education,” vandenBerg said during the Thursday evening announcement. “They can be challenging times for rural America as well, and they’re particularly challenging for small private residential liberal arts institutions, but one of the things that I’ve learned in my career is that small colleges and their towns, really have to work together for mutual benefit. There is no other way. Our fates are intertwined.”

With the move, Laurens will have a performing arts facility for the first time since the former City Hall, which contained a upstairs performance venue, was torn down and replaced with the current City Hall in 1929-30.

“There are so many wonderful uses for this building,” vandenBerg said.

Senn thanked former Capitol owners Ron and Debbie Campbell, who restored the theatre with its retro 1950 motif after purchasing the building in 2000, saying that the purchase will carry on their vision and legacy.

Senn also said, “I would really struggle to come up with a more consequential announcement that we’ve made recently.”

Since being elected as Laurens mayor in 2019, ending the dearth of performing arts in the city has been among Senn’s priorities.

“It’s the return of live performing arts at a time when I think people really miss them,” he said. “It provides a home for the Laurens County Chorale and community theater. Of course they will decide on whether or not they want to make it their home base, but we at least have a place for them now.”

The partnerships undertaken will provide that venue – at no cost to taxpayers, Senn said – for the city and county as well as unlock scholarship potential for public school students in the growing eSports realm. More than 250 colleges and universities currently compete in eSports in the U.S., and the majority of them offer scholarship opportunities.

“Just the possibility of scholarships that may be available for students, we’re just so excited about that,” said Laurens County District 55 Superintendent Ameca Thomas. “Not only that, but this could really give them an opportunity to make their dreams come true by having the opportunity to attend college to develop their skills and interests.”

District 56 Superintendent David O’Shields was also supportive of the move as the Red Devils eSports teams prepare call Laurens home.

“The mission behind PC’s motto, ‘While we live, we serve’ is emblematic in this effort and the efforts of our districts and in the cohesion of what the community can stand for – for progress,for growth and for change,” O’Shields said.

Senn said he sees PC’s expansion into Laurens as a way the college is attempting to help bring a county often divided by rivalries that go beyond the athletic fields.

“This is being done because of PC’s efforts to unify our county – Districts 55 and 56, the City of Laurens and the City of Clinton.”

Thursday’s announcement came during a busy week for PC, which also announced the addition of an off-campus student center at 112 Musgrove Street in downtown Clinton. Both those announcements preceded vandenBerg’s inauguration Friday as PC’s 19th president.

vandenBerg said the unique venue for eSports will help attract some of the best gamers to PC and to Laurens.

“That kind of talent really looks for college towns to come to and Laurens is now a college town,” he said.

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