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Copper thieves target theater, causing nearly $15,000 damage

The theft of copper at the Historic Palace Theatre caused nearly $15,000 damage last weekend, but even more troubling to volunteers was the disregard shown to a historic symbol of the city.

"We just keep giving back and giving back to the community, and then something like this happens," theater Executive Director Christopher Parada said Tuesday.

Thieves took four air-conditioner condensers that were in an alley next to the community-owned theater on East Avenue sometime between Saturday night and Sunday, Parada said.

It was a "sad day" in the long history of the theater, he said, noting that the thieves likely got about $350 worth of copper, but caused $10,000 to $15,000 damage when stripping the copper wire, pipes and core from the condensers.

The Palace became a nonprofit 15 years ago, Parada said. It is community-owned, and it's run by a volunteer board of directors. Parada is one of only two paid staff members.

"It makes it so much harder," Parada said of the damage. "For us, every $5 matters just to keep the doors open."

Volunteers get together on the weekends to clean carpets, fix plaster and perform other tasks. A volunteer was cleaning up the alley Saturday morning, and the condensers were fine, then the next day they were gone.

"They left the lids and fans, but the rest they stripped down for the copper. It was definitely someone who knew what they were doing," Parada said.

Each condenser was about half the size of a refrigerator. Whoever tried to take them apparently tried to take the whole units but were unable to remove them entirely because they were bolted down.

The heating-cooling units were installed about five years ago through a Grigg Lewis Foundation grant, Parada said.

Lockport Police Chief Lawrence Eggert said the theft at the Palace is part a larger problem with thieves stealing copper around the area.

"With the price of copper a little over $3 a pound, people are getting bolder," Eggert said. "A few weeks ago someone took the entire service [cable], which carries a ton of electricity, from the Lockport Plaza [on Transit Road]. It was 385 feet of wire, just stripped off the building to be sold for scrap. If they are bold enough to go after an industrial cable, they have just enough working knowledge to be dangerous."

Eggert estimated damage in the Lockport Plaza case at $5,000 to $8,000.

The Palace still has operational boilers in the basement for heat, but Parada said the theater gets hot in the summer, so the theater hopes to repair the destroyed units by May so they can be used for cooling. The hope is that insurance will cover the cost.

Stephen Yoder, technical director for the theater, said Palace officials and volunteers have been working to make the theater and surrounding grounds more secure, recently installing a door on the fire escape to prevent access to the roof.

They are encouraging downtown businesses to work together to increase lighting and improve outdoor surveillance in order to make something like this more difficult in the future.

Parada, who started as a volunteer himself nine years ago, called the Historic Palace "the gem of the city."

"It was built in the city in 1925 and now, 87 years later, it is still open and still going. We get a lot of people that are older who had their first kiss, their first date here. Those memories are still here," Parada said.

"By taking a stand against this type of theft, we hope we can protect our local businesses," he said.

Anyone with information about the incident is asked to contact the Lockport Police Department at 433-7700.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com