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Going upscale downtown: City working to remove asbestos, clean up old theater

STERLING – The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to come together.

Sterling Theater's new operator wants people to enjoy a unique experience from the moment they approach the downtown landmark.

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As they approach, customers will be dazzled by the brightly lit "Sterling" marquee. Once inside, they will be greeted by friendly staff and delicious smells.

Upon taking their seats, they can enjoy a "whole genre of upscale commercial films that never play in the area," the owner, Skip Huston, said this week.

Huston has the entire experience created in his mind. He hopes people will be able to enjoy it in just a few months – he is aiming for a late May opening.

Before the show can go on, though, a lot of work needs to be done.

The theater will be run by Huston, of Avon Theatre Management Co., based in Decatur. Sterling City Council lent $550,000 from its capital fund to the GSDC to buy the vacant downtown movie theater. The GSDC will sell it to Huston, who will make monthly payments for 11 years.

Huston and a handful of his employees spent Tuesday afternoon inside and outside the theater to get the building ready for opening night.

While Huston is working on the menu and seating arrangements and preparing the projection room, Sterling city officials are analyzing what they call "minimal" asbestos in the building and how best to remove it.

Clearing the air

Sterling City Manager Scott Shumard said the city had a consultant go through the theater and test for asbestos. He said abatement appears to be "relatively minimal."

A piece of equipment in the projector room needs to be abated through removal. Other equipment also needs to be sealed or removed, he said.

"Minor issues exist, such as some asbestos-containing flooring tiles upstairs and some asbestos-containing panels, but they are in good shape and pose no risk of releasing asbestos into the air," Shumard wrote in an email.

Shumard said the abatement coordinator was getting quotes for the work. He said he anticipates abatement costs to be less than 5 percent of the total project cost.

"If the City were forced to [demolish] the building in the future since the prior owner was severely neglecting it, the City would have had to do a full abatement on top of the demolition cost, and that could have cost the City more than the total for purchase and rehabilitation of the building," Shumard wrote.

Creating an experience

The theater will have two movie screens. Right now, each auditorium has 250 seats. Huston is considering removing a few rows of seats and putting in a platform to level the floor. Doing so would allow the placement of tables and chairs for dining.

Huston said he and his staff still are discussing a “brew and view” that would sell beer and wine along with food to moviegoers.

"Everybody seems to like the idea of the brew and view; we just have not figured out the logistics of it yet," he said. "I know that brew and views are very popular over the country, and it is something that we can do that the competition can't."

For Huston, the idea is to create a unique movie-going experience for patrons of Sterling Theater.

"This is going to be a theater for the upscale commercial crowd," he said. "Essentially, we go for the crowd that quit going to the movies; the crowd that doesn't like the talkers and the rude hooligans. We run a tight ship.

"We want people to come here to enjoy themselves and to watch the movie and have a good time."

To create that experience, Huston is focusing on the menu offerings the theater will have.

And don't forget about the popcorn.

"Our bacon popcorn is something that is phenomenal," he said. "It's real bacon and garlic butter. ... Once you've tasted it, you'll want more and more and more."

Management also plans to have special events at the theater.

Ashley Petty, manager of Avon Management Co., said Sterling could benefit from a downtown theater. She envisions a success similar to the Avon Theater in Decatur.

"The Avon has been a huge asset to Decatur, where we're from, a theater built in 1916," she said. "We've kept it running for the past dozen years, and we've developed quite a following there, and we think Sterling could use the same thing."

Petty said the theater company prides itself on "bringing your next door neighbor's kind of feel."

"Our customers are our friends. We know them; they're very loyal," she said. "We make all of our caramel corn and cheese corn and chocolate corn, and we pride ourselves on that.

"I think you can expect to come here and you'll be able to see a lot of friendly faces, a lot of good movies, and get really good popcorn."

Benefiting Sterling

Shumard said he had heard a lot of excitement in the community about the project.

"I'm really intrigued by this, and I hope to see this succeed," he said. "Having one more added feature in the downtown is a huge draw for the downtown. Sterling Today and Main Street, we've been working really hard to try and get things brought to life down here, add some vitality."

He said the downtown theater will add to existing Sterling offerings such as Music Fest, Hot Dog Days and the Fiesta Days celebration, which was held downtown last year.

"We're slowly getting downtown turned around, all for the good," he said.

What's Playing?

If the downtown Sterling Theater were open this weekend, the following movies would be playing, according to Skip Huston of Avon Theatre Management Co.:

• "Hyde Park on Hudson," starring Bill Murray

• "Anna Karenina," starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law

The following is a list of some of the movies that played in 2012 at the Avon Theater in Decatur. Skip Huston said similar movies can be expected at the Sterling Theater:

• "Moonrise Kingdom"

• "Ruby Sparks"

• "Arbitrage"

• "Robot & Frank"

• "Sleepwalk with Me"

• "Safety Not Guaranteed"

• "The Cold Light of Day"

• "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

"There is a whole genre of upscale commercial films that never play in the area," Huston said.

What's on the Menu?

Here is a selection of items that could be offered at the Sterling Theater:

• Pretzel bites

• Different versions of nachos

• Chicken wings

• Chicken nuggets

• Other finger-foods

• White Castle burgers

• Chicken sliders

• Gourmet popcorn

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