Ceremony marks end of Totah Theater renovation, celebrates return of live shows soon
Building's top floors designed to serve as offices, home base for new Totah Studios film and television creative venture
- The theater, which was built in 1949, was acquired by San Juan County last year and underwent a $1 million renovation.
- The facility will be used for film screenings and live entertainment events.
- Its upper floors will available to film and TV industry representatives to rent for office space.
FARMINGTON — San Juan County took a sizable step toward making itself more attractive to filmmakers on June 24 when local government officials gathered at the Totah Theater downtown to show off the newly renovated structure.
The theater, which was built in 1949, was acquired by San Juan County last year and underwent a $1 million renovation over the past several months. The facility will be used for film screenings and live entertainment events, but its upper floors will available to film and TV industry representatives to rent for office space.
The theater will serve as the base of operations for Totah Studios, a joint venture between the county and the City of Farmington, which will take over ownership of the building later this year.
Totah Studios will consist of the theater, and a film and TV backlot that is still in the planning stages.
Local government officials hope those properties will give the county a leg up on other communities when it comes to attracting film and TV projects to the area. They have identified increased film and TV production activity as one area through which the county might diversify its economy away from its historic reliance on the energy industry.
"I would just like to say thank you for preserving this," former owner Tom Taylor said to county officials before the June 24 ribbon-cutting ceremony that marked completion of the renovation work.
Taylor's family owned the theater for many years before selling it to the county in March 2020 for $300,000. He told a crowd of several dozen people about the history of the building, including two cats who had taken up residence in it, and described some of its distinctive features.
"This building has a soul," he said. "When you come in here, you feel it."
The renovation of the theater did not drastically alter is appearance, although most public areas of the building did get a thorough cleaning and a fresh coat of paint, while the upstairs offices received new carpet. Most of the work was done on the building's infrastructure, as it received a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, in addition to new wiring, fire sprinklers, LED lighting, high-speed Internet access and work to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
County Commissioner John Beckstead credited former County Commissioner Jack Fortner for promoting the idea of seeking the money for the project, which came in the form of capital outlay funding from the stage Legislature.
Beckstead said Fortner championed the idea "at a time when everybody said, 'They won't give you money for that.'"
Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett described the additional improvements that are in the works for the theater, including the addition of a new sound and projection system, the renovation of the restrooms and the reupholstering of the seats in the auditorium.
He noted his personal connections to the building, describing how he attended a piano recital for his daughter and participated in his first political debate there.
"The Totah Theater's a special place," he said.
County spokesman Devin Neeley, who also serves as the county's film liaison, said a card-key security system will be installed so that film or TV producers who rent the upstairs office will have secure, 24-hour access.
He said the process of turning the building over to the city will begin July 6 when the county executes a quit claim deed. Farmington Civic Center supervisor Randy West will take over management of the facility and will begin booking live events there.
Neeley said he had not been contacted by any film producers about leasing office space at the theater yet. But he said representatives of a half dozen local groups already had reached out to him, inquiring about using the space for a special event.
"Just based on community interest, we're excited about what's to come," he said.
Neeley said officials hope to have a grand opening event for the theater in the fall featuring locally and nationally known entertainers.
He said county commissioners have been involved in discussions with a film industry consultant about the best location for the planned backlot, which would be a multiple-acre site where a permanent set would be constructed. The set would be designed to serve as a small Middle Eastern, Native American or Spanish or Mexican community for films that feature such settings.
Neeley said commissioners have three locations in mind for the backlot, all of them owned by the county — a site near Jackson Lake north of Farmington, the San Juan County industrial complex or Lions Park in Kirtland.
A design for the set already has been completed, Neeley said, but he did not have an estimate on how long the build-out would take. He said he anticipated construction starting sometime this fall.
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.