Can Mad Cow Theatre jolt new life into Church Street?
Faced with uncertainty over an Orlando Magic team without superstar Dwight Howard and the heady days of the Amway Center's opening just a memory, city officials and nearby restaurateurs hope so.
After six years of planning, Mad Cow opens tonight in a Church Street complex just steps away from the Amway Center.
The theater's new space, part of the 55 West development of apartments and businesses, is subsidized by the city through an agreement similar to those with Orlando Shakespeare Theater and the Orlando Museum of Art.
"In a mixed-use environment, the restaurants will win, the parking places will win," said Jim Helsinger, artistic director of Orlando Shakespeare Theater. He has seen that happen for restaurants in the Ivanhoe area near the Shakes' home at Loch Haven Park.
And restaurant owners along Church Street hope that scene plays out with Mad Cow's patrons as well.
"We're hoping we can get some of the business," said John Paonessa, co-owner of Hamburger Mary's. "The Amway Center has done exceptionally well for us on concert nights and sports nights." But he appreciates the diversity the theater will bring will to the area. "It really takes a lot of the pressure off relying on events at the Amway."
William Blake, owner of the Rusty Spoon gastropub, said, "Anything we can get done to get a little energy down here is a plus for all of us."
Mad Cow will bring a more consistent clientele that's missing from Magic games or concerts at the Amway, said Blake, whose restaurant is hosting an opening-night gala dinner for the theater.
Kres Chophouse is hosting a post-show reception tonight. Introducing theater patrons to the restaurant is the first step in attracting regular customers, said managing partner Billy Ray Deans.
"It's all about building a relationship with our guests," Deans said. He plans to institute a special pre-theater menu to bring guests back. At Hamburger Mary's, Paonessa said he'll be offering a discount to Mad Cow ticket holders to encourage repeat business.
Diversifying the street's businesses is key to its future, said Debra Ray, president of the Church Street District merchants association.
"It's one of the things that will help with the rebirth of Church Street," Ray said. "The Magic, of course, help us. We love having them in our neighborhood, but we need other things, as well. They don't play 365 days a year."
A mix of offerings was part of the city's strategy in brokering the Mad Cow deal.
"A vibrant downtown includes culture and arts," said Thomas Chatmon Jr., executive director of the Downtown Development Board and Community Redevelopment Agency. "It's a key component."
The plan to bring a major arts group to Church Street started in 2001. Talks between Mad Cow and city officials began in 2006, and culminated in a 20-year lease for the theater company.
The new location — a former Hooters restaurant — has bigger stages and can seat up to 167 patrons in its larger theater.
Longtime Mad Cow fan Harry Goldman hopes that additional seating and prime location will expose more Central Floridians to the theater's work.
"There are all the restaurants around, there's lots of parking," said the Maitland resident. "I think they're going to increase their audience. More people will see what Mad Cow can do."
Goldman has followed the theater troupe from its early venue in Maitland to others in Winter Park and Orlando. Executive director Mitzi Maxwell sees the Church Street opening as symbolic of a stronger city center.
"In some ways, Mad Cow has been riding the wave of downtown Orlando development," she said. "This is the fruit of all that labor."
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