In the back of her mind, Melinda Payne always knew it was just a matter of time before the old Salem Theatre building would get sold. Located at 300-304 East Main Street in Downtown Salem since the 1930s, the three-story building has been underused for many years.
“We have shown the building to many potential buyers, and it’s wonderful to finally have a new owner with a vision that will complement our current offerings,” Payne, Salem’s Director of Economic Development, said. “Roger Neel has a proven track record of taking old structures such as theatres and turning them into something marvelous. We can’t wait to see his handiwork take shape.”
The negotiation process took about 90 days. According to officials, the City of Salem explored ways to convert the building back to a theatre, however, former renovations prevented that from happening. “The bottom floor was filled in with cement and to remove the concrete would have been an engineering nightmare,” Melinda said. “Based on our conversations with Mr. Neel, Salem is in for a real treat once he’s done.”
Prior to purchasing the old Salem Theatre building, Roger had ownership stakes in area restaurants such as Roanoke’s Billy Restaurant and The Farmhouse in Christiansburg.
Many Salemites remember the controversy that surrounded the theater in the 1960s once it started showing X-rated films. “I used to look forward to seeing what’s new on the weekends with my friends,” Bobby Smith said. “I knew that it wasn’t going to last forever so I took advantage of the opportunity when it presented itself.”
Over the years, the building was converted into an office space and housed such establishments as The Brown Hen and Lucky’s Pizza Shop.
While city officials say they are not in he business of upsetting people, they know that it is impossible to please everyone. “The first day that we met Mr. Neal and showed him around, he immediately said ‘I really like this building,’” Melinda said. “People should keep their eyes on the building and just watch the transformation.”
Said City Manager Kevin Boggess, “I am really excited to see what concepts Roger comes up with.”