City faces tough choice on new theater

Editor's note: How many screens, how many cars, how much popcorn does it take to make money in the movie business today? Check back later for an in-depth interview with Steve Mann, one of the owners of the successful Twin Cities-based Mann Theatres chain.

Southgate CinemaAnyone who thinks small town government isn't a challenge is nuts. I've been covering small towns for many years and the questions they decide often leave them in a no-win situation—with friends and neighbors on both sides. They're decisions I wouldn't want to make.

For example, lots of cities face zoning issues where community officials know that a developer can take a lucrative project to another city if they don't approve it. Rarely, however, does the developer have the option of moving a mere 80 feet away to get to that other community.

That's the philosophical debate the City Council will face in June when they receive a Planning Commission recommendation to refuse a change in the Comprehensive Plan to allow commercial zoning for about seven acres of land along Highway 3 across from Target. The change is the first step needed for landowner James Gleason and a developer to build a multi-screen movie theater complex.

Now lots of people would like to see something done about the movie situation in town. Southgate Cinema (pictured) lacks both the charm of historic downtown theaters and convenience and wow factor of places like Lakes 16 in Lakeville. (Southgate isn't involved in the current proposal and likely would face fatal competition from it.)

But finding an answer isn't easy.

Planning Commission members this week stuck to their guns and voted 3-1, with one member abstaining and two absent, to uphold the current comprehensive plan, which has the land zoned industrial. They talked about the philosophy of fighting suburban big box development to protect the town's character—and the need to have industrial land available. They made the decision knowing that in all likelihood the theater will be built on adjacent land Gleason owns with the proper zoning—but inside Dundas, sending the tax revenue there.

You can read the reasoning of Commission Chair Ross Currier, who is executive director of the Northfield Downtown Development Corporation, and member Tracy Davis, who also sits on the Economic Development Authority, as soon as they post their blogs. Although both are downtown advocates, they said this wasn't a downtown versus the highway decision.

I wasn't here at the time, but people say this is reminiscent of the debate a few years ago over allowing Target and Cub at their current sites. With both of them thriving, maybe the debate is moot. There was no organized opposition to the movie theater at the meeting.

Now the council can uphold the Planning Commission, lose the tax revenue and see the theater built anyway, or it can allow the theater and undercut the important role of the comprehensive planning.

"The question is whether you lead a real or theoretical life," said City Councilor Dixon Bond, who observes the Planning Commission meetings for the council. Bond wouldn't predict how the council would vote on the matter. But he said the decision is particularly tricky because there are no other parcels in town large enough to house the project as planned and the property has been available for three years without any industrial takers.

Gleason declined to discuss the project after the meeting, saying he wants to wait until the council has a chance to review it.