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Lights, camera, action downtown again?

City to vote on loan to GSDC to purchase theater

STERLING – A downtown Sterling relic could soon be lighting up the sky.

After months of working on the details, the Sterling City Council will vote Monday night on whether the city will loan money from its capital fund to the Greater Sterling Development Corp. for the purchase of the Sterling Theater.

Ralph White has owned the building since October 2009, City Manager Scott Shumard said, but it has been vacant for about 5 years. Most recently, it housed a discount theater, Shumard said. 

With council approval, the city would loan $550,000 to the Greater Sterling Development Corp. so it can buy the theater.

White’s asking price was $399,000; GSDC would buy it for $235,000.

There are hundreds of thousands of dollars in necessary repairs to get the building up to code, Shumard said.

The GSDC then would sell the theater on contract to Skip Huston of Avon Theatre Management Co., Shumard said.

Huston would make monthly payments over an 11-year term to purchase it. GSDC will use those payments to repay the city for the loan, Shumard said. In addition, the GSDC will be collecting rent on four units that are part of the theater property.

The money to make the loan will come out of the city’s 2012-13 capital funds budget. An anonymous grant is covering the cost of the repairs.

The GSDC is responsible for getting the building ready to show movies.

Once open, there will be two screens. One of Theater Management Group’s concepts is for a “brew and view” moviegoing experience, Shumard said, with beer and wine being sold to patrons. 

The management company is focused on creating a unique moviegoing experience that distinguishes it from other theaters, Shumard said.

“It’s not a race to the bottom for them. What they’re trying to do is create an actual experience at the theater,” Shumard said. 

For example, Huston creates his own flavored popcorn and serves items including hamburger “sliders” and pretzel bites. The idea is for patrons to be able to enjoy a meal while watching a movie.

Huston will supplement whatever films are not shown at the Carmike Sauk Valley 8 theaters, Shumard said. The idea is to also show “well-reviewed but not necessarily big-production movies.”

Special events may include a Halloween event showing of “Little Shop of Horrors.”

The agreement will call for two new digital projectors, Shumard said. In addition, one of the screens will be 3D-ready. Blue-ray projectors also will be put in. 

“All of this is so that they can do a variety of things with the theater that wasn’t done before,” he said. “They are big on doing special events, … things surrounding seasonal programming which most theaters don’t do.”

The theater would be open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Prices for the movies have not yet been determined. 

Theatre Management Co. wants to bring in its own manager to train employees in its customer service practices. The company likely will hire 12 part-time employees, Shumard said. 

Shumard said the city has had concerns about the building’s decay and in keeping downtown alive. 

“We’re looking for anything that will continue to drive people downtown,” he said. “Fourth Fridays has driven people downtown; some of the neat little new stores like Air Play, that’s driving people downtown. We’re just looking for anything we can to keep the people coming here, keep the commercial area alive.”

Another benefit of having the theater open would be getting a landmark building back in operation. Shumard said he is looking forward to seeing the tower and “Sterling” marquee light up again. 

“As it sits there, empty, the panels on the facade have fallen off; the tower’s not lit; you just have any empty building doing nothing to add to the downtown experience,” he said. “We just see this again as a way to drive people down, restore a landmark to the downtown and really refocus some things.”

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