Talking Movies at Town Hall

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Is there another movie theater in Chestertown’s future?

That was the question on the table at a meeting Wednesday night in Chestertown’s town hall. Kay MacIntosh and Jamie Williams, the economic development coordinators for Chestertown and Kent County respectively, met with a group of about 20 residents to explore ideas for replacing the Chester 5 Theatre, which closed after the June 4 shows.

Among those present was Matt Hogans, the local rental agent for Silicato Development, owner of the Washington Square Mall where the theater building is located. Hogans said the owner is not opposed to putting another theater in the vacant space. However, he said, renovating the space and replacing the projection equipment would cost as much as $750,000, if not more. He said Silicato would be open to working with a prospective tenant to ease the cost of getting the business up and running.

MacIntosh said she has spoken to the owners of the Chester 5, who said the new movie theater in Middletown, Del. had drawn away theater-goers with a larger, more modern facility, She said he also cited the presence of big-box shopping and restaurants in Middletown as a factor, along with the availability of alcoholic beverages in the theater there. With the closure of Chester 5, Middletown is now the closest theater to Kent County.

Others at the meeting cited online streaming services such as Netflix as a factor in the decline in theater business. Bob Kramer of Kinnaird’s Point said that rather than going to a theater for date night, millennials will often order in a pizza and beer and watch Netflix at someone’s home. Theaters have to offer something more than the traditional movie experience to compete, he said. “There aren’t many people under 35 here (at the meeting)<” he added.

Eliott Furhman of Kennedyville suggested streaming live concerts as a way to attract audiences to a theater. He said there are services that stream concerts by popular acts, opera companies and symphonies that are unavailable on home TV. Those could provide a solid income stream in addition to movies, he said.

Williams and MacIntosh said they had been in touch with operators of other movie theaters on the Eastern Shore, including those in Easton and Cambridge. They said the operators showed interest in taking over the Chester 5 facility if the economics made sense. Williams said that the theater is in the county’s newly designated enterprise zone, so there would be incentives for the capital investment needed to renovate the property. She said she had provided that information to the interested parties.

MacIntosh said she had talked to theater owners who had rented part of their facilities to restaurants where theater goers could eat before or after the movies. Beer and wine sales were critical factors in attracting customers, they told her.

One audience member asked if selling alcohol in a facility open to children would create problems.

Loretta Lodge of the Kent County Chamber of Commerce said alcohol sales don’t appear to have caused problems at Middletown. “They must have a way to police it,” she said.

MacIntosh said she knows of other communities where an older theater, often of the size and vintage of the Garfield Center, has been converted to a pizzeria with movie showings, often of classic or art films. She suggested that as a possible model for a public-private partnership theater. Several other attendees offered examples of communities that have adopted a similar model.

John Schratweiser of the Kent County Arts Council said there is a theater in Baltimore that Johns Hopkins University helps operate as part of a community partnership.

MacIntosh said Washington College should have a vested interest in a local theater. “They might want to cooperate,” she said.

Kramer said theaters could also make a fair amount of money from birthday parties and other private affairs.

One audience member asked whether the owner of P&G Theaters, which operated the Chester 5 complex, had tried any of the strategies being suggested. “If the previous operator didn’t think they were worthwhile, why would someone else take the risk?” he asked.

MacIntosh said the former operator, who had been in business many years, probably didn’t want to reinvent his business at this point. Middletown was a last straw for him, she said.

Furhman said the community might be better able to support three screens than five, as the theater previously offered.

MacIntosh said theater operators prefer more screens because they don’t know which of the films will break out with their audience..

Phillip Rosenberg said in his experience the audiences at the theater were better for more artistic films than for the “blockbusters.” He said the blockbusters often stayed too long, drawing very little audience after the first week.

MacIntosh said local theater operators have little choice about how long a given feature will run. She said it might work to have one screen in a multiplex supported by a local film society. “It would need to guarantee a certain income,” she said.

Richard Rosenberg said the Garfield, which was built as a movie theater, might be an attractive alternative to reopening the Chester 5. If it had an art film program, it could attract audiences from a wide area – it would be the only art theater on the Eastern Shore, he said. It would also appeal to the Washington College community, he said.

Vic Pfeiffer, a member of the Garfield board of directors, said the theater is often in use for rehearsals or otherwise unavailable for public events. He said the board had not yet discussed the possibility of a regular film program. At present, the Garfield doesn’t have a professional-quality screen or projector, he said.

The meeting broke up after about an hour. Summing up, MacIntosh said the community needs to plan for the kind of population and economy it wants. She said the proposed Chestertown Business Park being planned by Dixon Valve at the north end of town could be the first step in an economic revival. A viable entertainment scene would be a logical part of that revival, she said, and an added attraction for prospective employees considering a move to the area.

Hogans said he would pass along the ideas put forward in the meeting to the mall owner, who he said wants to work with the community.

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. Sheila Walker says:

    Look at the movie theatre in Easton as an example. It looks similar to the Chestertown theatre in the lobby, but the seats inside the theatre are new and comfortable. They also have “premier cinema” on Thursday nights where they show art, indie, and foreign movies. The theatre in Middletown does serve alcohol, but it’s only beer and you can only buy two beers. I don’t know that it’s made any difference in their profits. The family values types were having major temper tantrums and threatening to boycott the theatre when they started selling beer. Personally I don’t see selling alcohol as a huge draw for a theatre. I think most people go to the movies because they want to see the movie, not because the theatre sells beer. I’ve always thought that the Chestertown theatre could have been successful if they’d have put some money into renovations, but the owners just didn’t have the money after switching to digital. If I was rich, I’d do it.

  2. Lisa Usilton says:

    I think the idea of downsizing to fewer screens might be the way to go. However, the idea of including a pizzeria when we already have plenty of Italian food in our area does not appeal to me. I’d rather see a nice menu of American favorites. Perhaps, dinner seating could be at the screens. Kind of like dinner theatre where you arrive ahead of the film to eat. Then, watch the film. I also like the idea of live streaming. And, could there be the possibility of live performances by local bands and such?

    As to replacing it with an art film theater, I may love the arts but I don’t think that replaces what we’ve lost. I think we need something for our young people that is local and affordable. Not everyone can afford to go to Middletown. Could someone create a multi-entertainment facility? Could we have bowling to replace the bowling alley we have also lost? What about an ice cream, frozen yogurt, or frozen ice place? What about something like X-bos in Smyrna where the young kids can climb and play indoors? What about including an arcade? I love skee ball. Maybe, offering more in one location might draw more of the public.

  3. Robert Kramer says:

    Just for the record. I live in Kinnairds Point, Not Kentmore Park.

    Otherwise… a very accurate account of the meeting. Thanks to Kay and Jamie for getting some dialogue going.

    Bob Kramer

  4. Kay, there’s a wonderful concept theater in Portsmouth Virginia we’ve been to a few times when boating down there. It’s a great tourist attraction and draw for group outings. Worth looking at for ideas to incorporate into a multi-interest theater complex. http://www.commodoretheatre.com/index.php

    • Lolli Sherry says:

      Also for the record, the above comment is from me, Lolli Sherry, not “Sherry”.

      • Eliott fuhrman says:

        Could be great opportunity to add value to center.14’ooo sq clean space end unit with parking.Just have be creative.Devidie up space in front add concert space by using new fiber connection show live streaming shows from Live Nation could do billy joeal Friday,Bruce sat coming to you live. Then google Bens Desk in rear this will keep young graduates here

  5. Eliott fuhrman says:

    What great opportunity 14000 clean end row space with all that parking.But have to think not now but 10 years from now .There is nothing new out there but can combine innovative exciting space that will draw from miles. if My investors own center here’s what I would do, first have to google these venues will blow your mine and can be done right now right here. .Devide front 9000 sq ft in twolevel event concert center by connecting to new fast filter and partner up withLive Nation (google) stream there concerts frida ,sat ,Sunday .Billy Joey friday,Bruce sat In back franchise non profit by college Ben Franklin Desk (google) this would connect starts up with the world.

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