Movie options create real cliffhanger

Owatonna CinemaI’m not a bookmaker, but if I were, earlier this weekend I would have put the odds of getting a successful, for-profit movie theater in downtown Northfield about even with Barbaro running another horse race.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to have some movies downtown. It’s just that people may have to be more creative in looking for options. And I'll be honest, just before I filed this story I found an option that while still a longshot, may improve the odds just a bit.

Ever since the discussion started last month about the possibility of a new multi-screen movie theater (like this one in Owatonna) out along Highway 3, I’ve been doing research on the subject. I’ve reviewed the few communities I could find with downtown theaters, looked at the restoration of old theaters, the locations and the economics of new theaters and the interesting dynamics of those theaters that show independent and art house movies. I’ve talked to people who have started out in small theaters and have had to adapt as the movie industry has changed. So grab some popcorn and I'll tell you what I've learned....

Ready or not, a new theater is coming
Let’s start with that proposal for a new movie theater, which the City Council will address in its meeting at 7 p.m. Monday. Technically, the council isn’t voting on the theater, just on a change in the comprehensive plan that would allow a change in the zoning that would allow a theater on about seven acres west of Hwy. 3, roughly behind Arby’s and across from Target.

The Planning Commission wants the land to remain industrial, like the industrial land to the west. Commission members point to a new economic development study that reinforces the long-held feeling that the city needs more industrial land. Landowner Jim Gleason and theater developer Steven Payne plan to build a theater patterned after the one shown above, which Payne built in Owatonna. Payne has built eight theaters in all in small towns from Red Wing to Detroit Lakes, creating the Lakes & Rivers Cinemas chain. Gleason’s land stretches south across the city line into Dundas, and he and Payne plan to build on that part of the land if Northfield rejects the land use change. It’s not a threat, just reality.

“We want to build in Northfield,” said Gleason, who has owned the land for 20 years. He said he’s turned down offers for industrial uses he thought wouldn’t fit the area. And he had a deal nearly locked up earlier this spring, until College City Beverage withdrew from negotiations with the city and decided to relocate to another site in Dundas. Gleason said that with the retail, restaurant and service development along Hwy. 3, the theater is the best match he’s had for the property. And he notes that with other empty buildings and acreage sitting on the market, he doesn’t want to give up a sure thing for a future possibilities.

Developer has local ties, local concerns
Steven Payne is from the Twin Cities, but he also is an Ole, class of 1998. “I watched movies in the Grand,” he said in a recent phone interview. Payne has more than a financial interest in the new theater. He grew up in the movie business, the son of one of the Twin Cities’ major theater executives. He has developed his own business, targeting smaller communities with multi-screen theaters scaled to their audiences. Payne said a theater in downtown Northfield wouldn’t work financially, given the need to have multiple screens and accompanying parking. Gleason also notes that the Q block (between Third and Second streets along Hwy. 3), often mentioned as a possible site, sits so close to railroad tracks that the sound and vibration would be a problem for movie audiences.

The Hwy. 3 site was chosen because it’s far enough from the giant Lakeville Cinema 16 and from his own Owatonna theater. He and Gleason point out that their plan is to keep people in Northfield, citing the number of local people and college students who now travel to Lakeville for movies.

Theater owner Steve Mann agrees with Payne about the need to get the geography and the economics just right. A new movie theater can cost $5 million in land and construction and another $1.5 million in equipment, Mann said. It takes several screens to distribute the costs and offer enough choices to keep consumers coming back, particularly in areas where low population requires repeat business.

And parking requirements are tough on downtowns, with one spot needed for every four seats. That would mean about 400 parking spaces for the Hopkins Theatre, one of the few newer downtown cinemas. Having been to Hopkins many times, I know that even with parking lots and a parking ramp, good movies can fill on-street parking for blocks, where restaurants and bars also need space.

Competition is tough, even for the big guys
Mann knows what he’s talking about. Now 54, he has been in the business since 1970. He’s president of Mann Theatres, a legendary family-owned theater chain based in the Twin Cities, with 86 screens in 13 locations. He and his brother Benjie remember when Payne’s dad and their dad were partners. The Mann name is on the Southgate Cinema in Northfield, but they don’t own it, they just book movies for the owner. (The owner didn’t return a call for this story.)

Steve Mann wouldn’t comment on whether the Northfield theater is profitable, saying he simply gets a booking fee for his services. But he was willing to talk about his own experiences. “Our business has changed so much,” he said. Most theaters were downtown centers when his later father founded the company in 1935. Today Mann describes the Hopkins project as a one-of-a-kind arrangement that he couldn’t see duplicated.

“The city wanted a theater back and we worked with the city to do it,” he said. The city did demolition on the old buildings on the site, sold the land to a developer for $1 and provided a parking ramp and other city parking. The theater operates as a discount theater, with $2 tickets. The Manns simply lease the theater space. Mann said the discount operation works because the city subsidized the project and Hopkins can draw from all the western suburbs, a population base far larger than the city itself. It wouldn’t work as a first-run theater because there are too many others nearby, including two owned by the Manns, one in St. Louis Park, another in Plymouth.

Mann wouldn’t consider a theater in Northfield, citing its small population and close proximity to Lakeville. In fact, he was surprised that Payne was taking the risk.

Editor's note: Tomorrow we'll report the City Council's vote and talk about what options might work for bringing movies downtown. So come on back for the second half of this movie talk double feature!

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Market analysis

Any discussion that is going to be useful needs to address the supporting market needed to make a plan go. For example, the possibility of putting a small theater near the Dundas-Northfield border sounds really neat, IF the market to be served is the 15000 or so that Northfield and Dundas can supply. That number (postential customers) drives the number of screens (4-plex, 8-plex, etc.) and will determine whether a huge parking lot will be needed or not, as well as determining the impact on the Hwy 3&19 intersection (from people trying to get there from the north) and on the Hwy3 and CSAH 1 intersection (from people coming from the south). The location is strategically located so that it could be easily integrated into a side spur of the proposed trail systems (since the main north-south trail is across the river, though we would like to see trails on both sides anyway, and it would be really cool if the parking lot provided some securable racks for bikes right near the doors. So, if anyone can find out what size market the theater is being designed for, that would be VERY useful information for the rest of us to have.

What will happen to the old one?

The current tri-plex is essentially river-front property in a prime location. I wonder if there will be zoning/reuse talk about it during the upcoming meeting.

Northfield is central location

Bruce, the developer says the average consumer will drive up to 30 minutes to a theater, but less is better. If you locate the current theaters -- Lakeville, Apple Valley, Red Wing and Owatonna -- you can see that Northfield is a central point for a new theater, just as it is for Cub, Target and the other retail along Hwy 3. The developer is estimating 6-10 screens, but wants to crunch the numbers a little more. The design will be similar to Owatonna, which has 35,000 square feet.


I am calling for Ross Courier to step down from the Planning Commission.  His self-serving article in a recent edition of the Northfield News explaining his vote makes it clear that he is only interested in the downtown and is anti-HWY3 development.  WAKE-UP!  Use the businesses on HWY to market the downtown.  You can't continue to add residential housing developments in virtually every corner of the city and not provide businesses like CUB FOODS to accomodate their "everyday needs."   The downtown is fine if you're looking for antiques, hair salons, or tourist-type gifts.  Thankfully, the City Council has over-ruled the Planning Commission's vote on the theatre.  Courier's comments about annexing Dundas is representative of his narrow-minded view.  Step down Mr. Courier or at least abstain from voting on issues which, in your mind, conlfict with your precious downtown.