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The Ridglea has been rescued from the brink of bankdom

Posted 11:16am on Wednesday, Dec. 01, 2010

It's not often that the best-case scenario unfolds, so when it does, there's always a moment of disbelief: Is this really happening, or am I dreaming?

Such was the case last week, when I broke the news that Dallas resident Jerry Shults was interested in purchasing the Ridglea Theater. The San Antonio native, who owns a string of Gas Pipe smoke shops in Dallas, Austin and Albuquerque, says he has a signed contract with the building's current owner, Dallas-based FixFunding, and has handed over a down payment on the building.

Shults, who has no personal tie to the Ridglea beyond attending a few concerts there over the years, says he simply seized an opportunity, after potential buyer Bank of America backed out. Although he declined to specify the figure he paid, Shults says he spent close to what Bank of America would've to buy the building.

If all goes according to plan these next few weeks, Shults plans to close on the property on or around Dec. 12.

It's an amazing turn of events: After Bank of America first announced its plan to acquire the building in June, many of us assumed that the theater -- which was built in 1948 and has been operating as a live-music venue since the late 1990s -- would be turned into a bank branch.

"We'd like to return the theater to how it looked when it opened," Shults says. "It has a really nice flow as originally designed. We'd like to recapture that as much as possible."

It almost goes without saying, but it definitely bears repeating: The theater, and the city of Fort Worth, are extraordinarily fortunate that things worked out the way they did. More than once over the course of covering this story, I was told that it was a done deal: Bank of America was moving in and tearing down most of the Ridglea, and anyone who tried to alter that trajectory was going to get run over. Forget it, Jake -- it's Cowtown.

In many respects, this whole saga is a study in the importance of civic engagement. There were individuals who wanted to save the Ridglea -- Levi Weaver, among others -- but who often lacked the wherewithal to make any substantial moves. This isn't to say that their actions weren't futile -- far from it. I firmly believe that if the public had simply stood idly by and said nothing to the City Council or Bank of America, we'd all be watching as the wrecking ball tore into a piece of Fort Worth's history and brought it down forever.

On a much simpler level, though, this is a triumph for music lovers, and for those who care about the cultural vibrancy of the city. Consider Fort Worth's near-total lack of midsize music venues. Apart from the Ridglea, there isn't another room in town that isn't a cozy club (no, the 13,500-capacity Fort Worth Convention Center doesn't count). Casa Mañana has flirted with the idea of hosting more concerts (Dawes and Telegraph Canyon played there this summer, and there will be a pair of shows during the Stock Show), but the city needs a space, like the dearly departed Caravan of Dreams or what the Ridglea once was, that provides a place for local and national bands of note to perform, so that Fort Worthians aren't forced to drive 80 miles round-trip to see worthwhile shows.

We aren't there yet, but Shults' acquisition of the Ridglea is the most positive step in that direction. He envisions the space as something like a blend of the Granada and the much-missed Caravan of Dreams. In my conversation with him, he name-checked Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel and Built to Spill as artists he would love to bring to town. That's a welcome change of direction for a venue that has mostly focused on heavy metal in recent years and has been abandoned by a significant chunk of the concert-going population.

But, just as it took time for the Ridglea saga to play itself out to this point, so too will it take time for Shults to get everything just like he wants it. The new owner is planning extensive renovations in an effort to get the Ridglea back to its original condition. He also hopes to get the building designated as a historic landmark.

So exercise patience, Fort Worth, and maintain your support of Shults as he works to restore the Ridglea. For as much as this is a triumph, we all need to heed a larger message here: You can't always count on miracles. This time a benevolent citizen -- who, it should be pointed out, doesn't even live in Fort Worth -- rescued a building that, by all rights, should've been protected long ago. Unless we all start paying more careful attention to the buildings and venues we cherish, next time we might not be so fortunate.

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