New home in wings for Burning Coal

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — After 10 years of performing on other organization’s stages, Burning Coal Theatre Co. is nearing completion of a campaign to raise $500,000 to renovate the auditorium in the historic Murphey School in Raleigh to serve as its permanent home.

The nonprofit drama troupe, formed in 1996, has raised $260,000 in private funds, and needs to raise only $40,000 more to secure a challenge grant of $200,000 from the city of Raleigh.

As part of its fundraising effort, which began in March 2004, Burning Coal on Sept. 13-16 sold chairs from the school’s auditorium believed to date to the 1930s.

Burning Coal also expects to sign a 23-year lease at Murphey School, which is owned by the state and sublet to the Downtown Housing Improvement Corp.

DHIC and Burning Coal both hope to extend their leases to 50 years with Miami-based LNR Property Corp., which is buying the school as part of its plan to develop a six-block area just east of the state government mall into a residential, retail and commercial complex.

“LNR wants us there,” says Jerome Davis, the theater company’s artistic director and co-founder. “They see us as a very strong anchor for their community.”

With an annual budget of $300,000 and two full-time employees, Burning Coal produces four plays a year during its season, which runs from August through May, performing each play 14 times over three weeks.

The first production this year is 1776, a musical that opened Sept. 21.

Burning Coal generates roughly 30 percent of its funding from the Arts Commission for the City of Raleigh, the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, and the North Carolina Arts Council; 20 percent each from ticket sales and individual contributions; 15 percent from an education program that provides residencies in area middle schools and high schools; and 15 percent from concession sales, fundraising events, and a classical play it performs annually at area middle schools, high schools and colleges.

Built in 1916, Murphey School in 1960 became the first desegregated school in what was then the Raleigh City Schools system.

The school board voted to desegregate the school during a meeting in its auditorium.

While the auditorium has not been used since 1977, the Downtown Housing Improvement Corp. since 1991 has provided 52 apartment units for low-income elderly persons.

Doug Redford, senior project manager for the Southeast region for LNR, says Burning Coal will be integral to the mixed-use neighborhood the firm is developing.

Plans for the 21-acre development call for 495 residential units, 37,000 square feet of retail space, 20,000 square feet of office space and 90,000 square feet of commercial space, all to be developed in four phases starting in August 2007 and ending in roughly February 2010.

Designed by Louis Cherry of architecture firm Cherry Huffman Associates, with Greg Paul Builders serving as general contractor, renovation of the auditorium will began in September and is scheduled to be completed next April, Davis says.

Big donors to the campaign include Raleigh developer Smedes York; Jeanne Abmayr of Massachusetts; the A.E. Finley Foundation; the Josephus Daniels Charitable Fund at the Triangle Community Foundation; Capitol Broadcasting Co.; the A.J. Fletcher Foundation; and WRAL-TV.

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