UTRGV plans to turn the old Majestic Theater in Brownsville into a performing arts center

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The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is planning to purchase the old Majestic Theater and adjacent JCPenney building in Brownsville to transform into a performing arts center for its College of Fine Arts, UTRGV officials said Saturday.

The UTRGV Board of Regents plans to vote on the purchase Thursday. Although the cost of the sale from the current owner, the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, is unclear, the university may spend somewhere in the vicinity of $47 million to renovate the buildings for campus expansion if the transaction is approved.

This would provide the performing arts students in music, dance and theater with their own performing arts center as UTRGV currently leases the Texas Southmost College-owned venue on campus.

“We are excited about the purchase of these buildings because it will provide our performing arts students in Brownsville with space to call their own,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in a statement. “At the same time, we are well aware of the city’s commitment to revitalizing downtown, and we are confident that this project will help enhance those efforts.”

Brownsville Mayor John Cowen also expressed enthusiasm about the move, saying he’s “thrilled” the board will be meeting soon to vote on the purchase.

“My understanding is the university still needs to complete their feasibility study to close the deal, but this project would accelerate private investment in the area and continue our considerable progress towards a more vibrant downtown,” Cowen said via text message Saturday.

The Majestic is a local historical site and was built in 1948 as part of Karl St. John Hoblitzelle’s movie theater chain, which had vaudeville beginnings. Hoblitzelle’s chain had already seen the opening of Majestic Theaters in Dallas and San Antonio by the time it first opened its doors in Brownsville.

Art Deco murals still adorn the inside of the theater where its original marquee and much of the façade remain intact, and where its vertical sign prominently and proudly greets passersby at its 1002 E. Elizabeth St. location, in the heart of downtown.

The board’s agenda indicates that UTRGV may at first use the buildings, which together measure about 54,050 square feet in space, for “educational purposes.”

Shuttle service would also be required for students, staff and faculty from the Brownsville campus since there is only on-street parking available in the area.

Once renovated, the center is expected to provide performance, rehearsal and instructional space for performing arts students.

“We are committed to ensuring our students in the College of Fine Arts have the proper resources and space to be successful,” College of Fine Arts Dean Jeff Ward said in a statement. “This is definitely a step in the right direction, and we look forward to announcing more good news in the future.”

Pedestrians cross the road along Elizabeth Steet across from the historic Majestic Theatre building in downtown Brownsville Saturday as the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley plans to acquire the building. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

The would-be purchase of the Majestic and JCPenney buildings, however, does not solve UTRGV’s current problem at the Rusteberg Hall, the problematic home of the School of Art and Design in Brownsville where students have expressed concern about deteriorating conditions in the building.

UTRGV officials said Saturday that plans are in place to move that program out of Rusteberg, which is leased from TSC, and into a new building to be constructed on campus that would house the school’s programs, including ceramics, sculpture, painting, printmaking and graphic design.

More details about these construction projects are expected to be announced in the fall.

Until then, the university has purchased new equipment and furniture for Rusteberg Hall and is pressuring for a list of maintenance issues compiled by students and staff to be resolved, according to the university.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include Mayor John Cowen’s remarks.