SALT LAKE CITY — A man went to new "heights" this week in his attempt to spare an old theater property from demolition.
On Tuesday, Michael Valentine chained himself to the exterior of the former Utah Pantages Theatre, 144 S. Main St., in a feat captured on social media, and said he was going on a hunger strike.
"I'm happy to chain myself to something I care about, you know," said Valentine, one of the leaders of the group "Save the Pantages Theatre." "Not only is the fate of the theater on the line, but basically the core of our democracy is at stake, in my opinion."
By Wednesday evening, Valentine said he had ended his hunger strike and was seated in front of the property instead of chained to it, engaging passersby who were interested in saving the building.
"They still don't understand what this is," Valentine said. "They have no idea how important this theater is because it's an investment."
Valentine has claimed Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency has misrepresented the property's potential for eligibility on historic registries and also inflated estimates of restoration costs in the group's presentations to city leaders.
Those types of claims brought strong rebuttals from both the Redevelopment Agency and Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Wednesday.
"The group alleges that the RDA staff and leadership kept information from the City's elected officials that would have made a material difference in their decision-making on the theater," read a statement from Amanda Greenland, communications and outreach manager with the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City. "These allegations are untrue. We are confident that the documents and the public meetings (both video and minutes) speak for themselves, showing the RDA's transparency, efforts to find an end-user for the theater, and desire to preserve the historic elements of the property."
Earlier this year, the agency contracted with a firm to document the space prior to any demolition.
The demolition would make way for a high-rise tower expected to include some affordable housing units.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall in a statement Wednesday also defended the sale of the property as "transparent" and the process as "both lawful and ethical."
"The passion for the Utah Theater is understandable — before being converted into a split-level movie theater in the late 1960s it was a grand venue in our city," the mayor's statement read. "But the reality today is that when it was converted, the unique and historical nature of the building was largely removed and it is not the grand venue it once was."
The mayor also described the property as a "gilded venue for those who could afford to pay for entry."
"It would take tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to bring back to a safe and usable state, the cost of which is comparable to the cost of construction for all three homeless resource centers," the mayor's statement read. "The City Council and Administration at the time made the decision that it was not in the best interest of City taxpayers to attempt to restore the theater to a usable state."
Valentine balked at the renovation estimates and said that consultants who have worked to restore hundreds of old theaters across the country have told his group the costs would likely be considerably lower.
He remained hopeful something might change and that the theater somehow may be saved.
"Should we tear down the Capitol? Should we tear down the City and County Building? Should the pyramids be torn down?" Valentine questioned. "I think it would be devastating to Utah to say the least."