No action on future of theater

FAIRMONT – In a file folder for movie theater, Fairmont’s economic development director doesn’t have many leads, mostly just articles on how the industry is changing and why more venues are closing than opening.

Fairmont has been without a theater since August, when Five Lakes Cinema closed. Proprietor Dan Blaalid could not afford to purchase five new projectors for the venue, when Hollywood stopped distributing 35mm films in favor of digital. Blaalid has estimated the cost of the projectors at $450,000.

The expenses don’t end there, however.

To purchase the building and five new projectors, fix the roof and make other necessary improvements, Fairmont EDA director and city administrator Mike Humpal roughly estimates the cost of the project at $800,000.

“I’d love to have a movie theater, personally,” he said. “Anytime I have a lead, I follow up on it.”

But the odds have not been in Fairmont’s favor thus far.

The theater, located on State Street on the north end of town, is owned by Fairmont Cinemas Limited Partnership, based in Golden Valley. Before Blaalid took over the venue, it was managed by a company called Evergreen Entertainment, which owned all the equipment, from the screens to the seats. In June 2011, Evergreen was evicted for failing to make its minimum monthly rental payment of $8,200, according to an eviction noticed filed in Martin County District Court.

The company was previously threatened with eviction when it fell behind by $50,000 in rent, plus interest, but a settlement was reached out of court. Rent on the building included utilities and taxes.

Blaalid re-opened the theater in September 2011, and said business was good. He had reached an agreement with the landowner that made it more affordable to run the operation, but not so affordable he could purchase the new projectors, which is the reason he cited for closing this past fall.

“I go walking down the street and people ask me, ‘When are we going to have a movie theater?'” he said, but he has no good answer for them. His efforts to stir up interest in fundraising or build a new theater in a different location fell flat.

There has been some out-of-town interest in the building.

Jeff Logan, president of Logan Luxury Theaters, inquired into the theater. He owns three cinemas in South Dakota towns similar in size to Fairmont.

“Fairmont is certainly a large enough town to have a theater and should have one,” Logan said. “The problem is there is a lot of money that has to go into the digital projection and the building and updating.”

The Logan family has been in the movie business 80 years, and the current president remembers not so long ago when Fairmont’s theater was built.

“It has been 20 years, and these have been an important 20 years in the evolution of theaters,” he said.

In order to get people out of the comfort of their homes, with their big screen TVs and surround sound systems, the general consensus is movie theaters have to be top-of-the-line.

“We’re seeing a little weeding out of the weaker … theaters that haven’t been maintained over the years, where the really good theaters are thriving,” Logan said.

Many people going out for a movie today expect the highest-quality sound system and picture quality, plus stadium seating, the comfort of high-back rocking seats, and a wide variety of food and beverages from a concession stand that rivals some local eating establishments.

“Even a wonderful home theater system doesn’t come close to what you can have in a quality theater,” said Logan, comparing the experience to dining out at a top-knotch restaurant versus making a meal in your kitchen at home.

“To be competitive nowadays, and in the theaters I run, I don’t run them on the cheap,” he said.

But it has to be affordable, and that’s a crucial element Fairmont’s theater seems to be lacking.

“You have to make this huge investment in digital equipment, and then bring the building up to date. Also, it’s not stadium seating, which people prefer, and the roof needs to be repaired. That building needs to be leased at such a low price as to be able to afford that,” Logan said.

Personally, he’s not convinced he wants to use up his credit line to take on such a big project – plus the advertising needed to impress people about the venue and get them back in the doors.

“That theater could be turned into a really good theater, but you’ve got to be willing to spend a lot of money,” he said.

Some Fairmont residents have asked the city to take on the venture, using the logic that the theater could be a service offered to the public, sort of like the aquatic park. Neighboring smalltown Sherburn owns its theater, which is part of the community center. Fairmont city staff say that isn’t the norm, and they are not willing to take on that role.

“I could easily find 500 cities that own aquatic parks, but I could not find 500 cities that own theaters,” Humpal said.

His logic: “If it’s a viable business effort for the city to be in, it should be a viable business effort for a group of business people to invest in. Why would I risk tax dollars on something not proven to be financially viable?”