James Mollitor remembers the Westbury Theatre in better times.
The local restaurateur saw plenty of films at the once-majestic venue as a boy, he said. Before it became littered with beer bottles. Before homeless people started sleeping there. Before Post Avenue became a "ghost town."
Now, more than a decade after going dark, the theater is staging a comeback, courtesy of a multimillion-dollar makeover. And if it's successful, the hope among political and business leaders is that downtown Westbury will follow suit.
Experts say it's an experiment that bears watching.
"For Central Nassau County, this is groundbreaking," said Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a smart-growth nonprofit based in Northport. "It may serve as a model for other Nassau downtowns to use the arts as a centerpiece for their communities."
The tale of Post Avenue is not unlike many other Main Streets. Mom-and-pop shops on the once-thriving street were choked in the 1970s and '80s by large retailers at Roosevelt Field and The Source malls, business leaders said. Amid the vacant storefronts, nothing symbolized downtown blight more than the movie house, a 1927 Tudor-style brick and timber twin theater that closed in 2001.
Ruin to restoration
The theater, once the site of elaborate vaudeville productions, deteriorated so much that the courts ordered it kept closed while the village and owner battled over its future. In 2004, Roslyn developer Cyrus Hakakian paid about $1.7 million for the site at a bankruptcy auction.
While pursuing the sale, Hakakian said, he was content to raze the theater and replace it with retail stores and apartments. Then he stepped inside one day.
"It was just majestic," he said. "The skylight, the brick walls, it was just beautiful."
Hakakian says he's poured nearly $10 million into the new theater. He's kept its brick-and-steel shell, along with some of the building's original woodwork.
The rest has been gutted and repurposed, with a new Tudor-style facade, tall columns and eight chandeliers. The theater, which can hold 1,500, has six bars and lounge-style banquettes along the balcony, executive director Bruce Michael said. And it is expected to create at least 30 full-time jobs, Hakakian added.
When it opens -- developers are planning on late March -- it will be reborn as The Space at Westbury, a state-of-the-art performance center.
"We took a very old, aesthetically ugly, displeasing piece of property that hasn't been used at all," Mayor Peter Cavallaro said. "It's being redeveloped for use that could change the whole dynamic of the village."
Mollitor is among those betting on its potential. The Paris-trained chef returned to his Westbury roots 2 1/2 years ago after stints in Manhattan and Long Island. Mollitor, 52, bought the Galleria Ristorante down the street, an area staple for the last 27 years.
"I envision on a Thursday night there's a show, 400 people filing out of that theater at 10:15 at night," Mollitor said, "coming for espresso or dessert." He will prepare a menu special for them.
Mollitor is in, but attracting other business owners has proved tough, village leaders said. Some have balked at moving to Post Avenue, fearing the promise of a revitalized downtown will not be realized.
"People are interested, but they are holding back until this movie theater puts the key in the door," said Catharine Moramarco, vice president of the village's business improvement district.
Business and village leaders hope the theater will attract different kinds of stores than many populating Post Avenue today.
"We have a lot of service businesses and that's what we're trying to get away from," Moramarco said. She said she would like to see fewer nail and hair salons and more businesses vital to a thriving downtown: high-end restaurants, cheese shops, an "upscale" jewelry store, perhaps a frozen yogurt shop.
The village has tried wooing new retail to downtown, with mixed results. In the early 1990s, the village started the business improvement district. It imposed an 18.5 percent tax on property owners -- reduced three years ago to 15 percent -- to fund a face-lift for the downtown corridor. Combined with state and local grants, the village invested $3.5 million into the upgrades. In 1999, the improvement district began offering store owners $500 to adopt new signage.
The result: Post Avenue has a fresh "look."
Most of the buildings are built of stucco and draped in HardiePlank siding. Woodcarved signs with elegant fonts have replaced neon-lit lettering.
The approach has proved successful. In the 1990s, some 30 of 120 storefronts on Post Avenue stood vacant. Today, according to the village, 92 percent are filled.
The business district -- the majority of which spans Post Avenue from Old Country Road to the Northern State Parkway -- recently began soliciting specialty shops and national chains with grants. Large chains are eligible for $10,000 to $20,000, specialty and mom-and-pop shops $5,000 to $7,500. So far, the approach has not paid off and is being relaunched, this time for more property owners. Again, the tactic hinges on the theater's opening, business leaders said.
In recent years, the village, looking to draw young professionals and empty-nesters, approved mixed-use zoning laws that led to more than 400 multifamily units being built around the train station over the last 10 years. Most of them, Cavallaro said, are filled. Revitalizing the downtown corridor, he said, is "a decision to be successful."
The capstone is the theater.
Westbury isn't the first community to host a new performing arts center. Bay Shore, Northport, Patchogue, Huntington and, most recently, Riverhead are among those that have invested in such facilities, seeing them as vital to their downtowns.
Each is in Suffolk, and their largely successful centers -- like the one in Westbury -- have something in common, Alexander said: "Right in the heart of a centrally located downtown, with an excellent train station."
Example for others
If Westbury is successful, Alexander said, the approach could take off in other Nassau communities.
Joseph DeLucia, owner of Maria's Pastry Shop on Post Avenue for 17 years, is among those who see opportunity.
He recently was having trouble coming to an agreement with his landlord on the price of rent and said he was considering moving to Suffolk, or Manhattan. But DeLucia, who began his career in the shop weighing sugar and later rose to become owner, was torn.
"I grew up here, all my life; this was downtown," said DeLucia, 41. "I'm going to be the guy who's gonna mess it up?"
He bought a vacant lot across the street and opened a bigger place in November.
The shop sells the same pastries, but he has added a new breakfast croissant line and imports high-end coffee roasts. And there's an espresso bar.
The theater and the new condos are within blocks, which means potential new patrons. He wonders whether a poetry night will draw them in.
"I see a lot of young faces," he said hopefully.
He has big plans. He'd like to see the rest of Post Avenue catch up, too.
"I believe this whole thing of change is a little on the late side," he said. "But it's a good direction to go in."