One year after fire, work on Georgia Theatre set to begin

ATHENS -- Reconstruction of the Georgia Theatre, a major concert venue in Athens for more than 30 years, is expected to begin shortly, a year after the building was destroyed by fire.

Owner Wilmot Greene said construction could start next week.

Earlier this month, Athens First Bank & Trust approved a loan for Greene to start rebuilding. The loan is contingent on Greene getting plans approved by the state Department of Natural Resources' Historic Preservation Division, which would allow Greene to draw federal grant money to help pay for the $4 million project.

The fire, likely caused by a smoldering cigarette or shorted-out fan, ruined about $700,000 worth of work Greene had put into the 121-year-old building, which became a concert hall in 1977.

Greene acquired the building, originally a YMCA, in 2004. For five years, he focused on repairs and renovations. By 2009, the building had a new paint job inside and out, new restrooms and a new sound system.

''We had decided that we were done renovating, that everything was beautiful and right where it needed to be,'' he said. ''People were coming back in better numbers. Bands knew what was up and really wanted to play here.''

By mid-morning of June 19, 2009, fire had destroyed all those gains and a pillar of the Athens music scene.

Insurance money paid off Greene's debt, which gave him outright ownership of the building, but there was no money left over to rebuild.

After a lengthy cleanup, just the four steel-supported brick walls remained of the place where bands like R.E.M., Pylon, Widespread Panic and the B-52s had played to crowds of about 800 for years.

''I had to spend a couple hundred thousand just to secure the walls and make them safe,'' he said. ''It would've been easier to start over, but there's just so much history here.''

Fans stepped in, raising money at concerts, through T-shirt sales and on the Georgia Theatre website.

The money raised goes to the Georgia Trust, a historic preservation group that will pay contractors.