The NorVa opened in 1919 at 317 Monticello Ave. in the Granby District as a movie house with an 18-piece orchestra that accompanied the silent films. In 1980, the dormant space was converted into a health club. For that reason, the building has an indoor basketball court.
In 2000 the NorVa became a standing-audience venue for 1,500 where performers enjoy its sophisticated sound system and a stage with 30-foot clearance for lights and equipment. The NorVa is rounded out by wood floors, brick walls, two full bars and two minibars. Kelly's Backstage Tavern occupies the NorVa's Granby Street side, allowing diners early entry into shows.
All that aside, City of Norfolk Communications Director Terry Bishirjian says that the Granby District has in the past 10 years enjoyed a 910 percent increase in dining receipts, and downtown tax assessments have increased 158 percent from 1996 to 2006.
When the NorVa was undergoing its renovation, the midcity shopping mall, MacArthur Center, was also being constructed. The two have provided a powerful economic catalyst.
"When the NorVa was revived, MacArthur Center was being created, Monticello Avenue was an urban bowling alley," Bishirjian says. "With the opening of MacArthur on the one side, and the NorVa on the other, Monticello burst into life."
Sarah Parker, an assistant director in Norfolk's development and marketing office, adds that prior to the NorVa there were three restaurants in the neighborhood, and now more than 80, including those within the mall. The NorVa's opening also jump-started the life of several other older theater spaces.
Within three blocks of the NorVa is Tidewater Community College's Jeanne and George Roper Performing Arts Center, restored in 2000 from the 1926 Lowe's Theater that darkened in the 1970s. The 1915 Granby Theater recently reopened as a hybrid nightclub-meets-performance venue. There's also the nearby 96-seat black box theater for the Governor's School of the Arts.
Whether a similar blossoming may occur in Richmond depends on varying factors, not the least of which is public willingness to travel into downtown, and the variety of offerings.
"All I can tell you is that it works," says Bishirjian of the NorVa's impact. "I see audiences lining up out front at 5:30 in the afternoon. It's a beautiful thing."