Bullet holes mar a shooting range in the basement. One dank room, according to a sign, is a vault for combat weapons. A silhouette of a lone soldier is painted on the stairwell wall.

But when a group of West Chester residents enters the National Guard Armory, they see the arching, vaulted ceiling; the hall fit for a stage; the balcony that looks like it was made to be a light booth.

They see a theater.

"The first time I walked in, I went, 'This is a theater-in-waiting,' " said Tim Blair, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at West Chester University.

After nearly five years of effort, a project to turn the Armory on North High Street into a performing arts theater is moving forward, with organizers hoping they can open by next summer.

The plan has generated excitement in the area, where there are many performing arts groups but few venues to host them, said Tom McEvoy, president of Uptown! Entertainment Alliance, the group he and friends formed to establish the theater.

"They play in gyms and churches and things like that, which are fine. But none of them have a home," McEvoy said. "There isn't a real first-class theater dedicated to all these performing arts groups."

Across the country, new theaters have become rare sights, particularly since the recession, said Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell, founding artistic director of the Resident Theatre Company, which will be housed in the new theater.

"Sometimes you fear that live theater is dying with all the media we have access to. We've found that not to be the case at all," said Mitchell, a New York actor and director who moved to West Chester three years ago.

The effort has inspired the creation of the resident company and drawn scores of volunteers.

This month, organizers began the zoning process necessary to approve the plan and close the purchase on the property. With $1.5 million to go toward a $3.7 million goal, they are ramping up fund-raising efforts and hoping to double the size of their board, McEvoy said.

The Resident Theatre Company is to launch on Friday, and Uptown will kick off the public phase of its capital campaign at the end of June.

Uptown was authorized by the state legislature to acquire the armory in 2013 after the National Guard troops moved to another facility.

The theater space will be available to rent, and the Resident Theatre Company will stage long-running shows there. Mitchell plans to bring together local artists and actors from New York City.

Though her group aims to make the theater as high quality as Broadway, it also hopes to be part of the local community.

"Something you can't get in New York," Mitchell said.

Uptown has already collaborated with the West Chester Studio for the Performing Arts, and West Chester University plans to send students and faculty to perform at the theater. The university has the most performance space in the area, but its three theaters are generally booked solid with student productions or visiting artists, Blair said.

"The performing arts are always expanding in the county," Blair said. "This is a great initiative to help fill the need for additional space."

The theater also aims to make the borough a destination, continuing the revitalization the area has seen in recent years.

Though much of West Chester, particularly the food scene, has "gone bananas," as McEvoy said, entertainment is one area in which some say it is lacking.

"It will be great for our local economy," said Borough Council vice president Stephen Shinn.

More broadly, the project "continues the tradition of live entertainment," Mitchell said. "To keep that alive in a community is so important."