The Ioka theater in downtown Exeter celebrates its 100th birthday this year, but it may have to keep waiting for its second act to begin. A group of investors who made an offer in February to building owner Alan Lewis to convert the theater into a restaurant and brewery rescinded that offer on May 21, according to Darren Winham, the town’s economic development director. Winham said that neither he nor the investors ever received a response from Lewis about the offer.
“The offer was extremely substantial, and when you make an offer and put it out there and commit resources to something like this, you can only do it for so long,” Winham said.
Winham would not reveal any details about who the investors were. However, he said they offered to purchase the building for approximately $500,000 — $150,000 more than its assessed value. Winham said he had previously spoken to Lewis about what sort of business might work in the building, and Lewis indicated a brewery or restaurant would be a good fit.
“He wanted to make sure whoever purchased it cared as much as he did about the historical (nature) of the building and that its historical architecture was maintained. That was really important to him. … He also wanted to make sure whoever purchased it was well-heeled enough (to fix it),” Winham said.
Lewis did not return a call seeking comment. Winham said the investors were “disappointed” and “perplexed” about Lewis’ lack of response to the offer.
“It’s an incredible asset when it’s in operation. I want to see something happen with it sooner rather than later.”
— Darren Winham
The Ioka closed in 2008. The following year, the nonprofit Exeter Theater Company (ETC) formed and began a campaign to preserve and eventually operate the theater. Lewis, of Kensington, purchased the building at auction in 2011. For the next two years, the ETC attempted to reach an agreement with Lewis to purchase the theater. The nonprofit conducted membership drives and hosted fundraisers, community rallies, and cultural events in the hopes of raising money to buy and renovate the building. However, Lewis frequently changed the terms of the agreement, initially offering the building to the ETC at no cost, then setting a March 2013 deadline for a $60,000 deposit, and finally offering the nonprofit the building for $400,000. In November 2013, the ETC announced it was suspending its efforts to acquire the theater.
The building has been vacant since 2008 and, according to Winham, “it needs a lot of TLC.” He’s been in the building more than 12 times and said some of the notable repairs needed include fixing a hole in the floor created by rainwater damage and removing mold in the building’s lower level.
“It’s nothing tragic in any sense. It’s a property that needs a lot of attention,” he said.
Winham said the first question he gets when talking with residents and businesses interested in moving to Exeter is, “What’s happening with the Ioka?” With the town moving forward on a large-scale downtown sidewalk renovation project this summer, Winham said he hopes something happens with the building.
The Ioka is “the centerpiece of the community and it’s an incredible asset when it’s in operation. I want to see something happen with it sooner rather than later,” Winham said.
At top: the Ioka's iconic marquee in downtown Exeter (photo by Adam D. Krauss)