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Brew and view moves in new direction

Management group of Sterling Theater, city part ways

Published: Saturday, July 19, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Sterling Mayor Skip Lee (left) and Tim O'Brien, the Sterling Theater general manager, stand outside the movie house on its opening night Aug. 23, 2013, and discuss the light display. The theater was renovated and reopened after being vacant since 2007. Now another change is ahead for the movie house. The city cut ties with former owner Skip Huston and now is considering leadership options that might include O'Brien.
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Moviegoers get their food, drinks, and popcorn before the night showings of "The Way Way Back" and "An Unfinished Song" on opening night of Sterling Theater on Aug. 23, 2013. The theater also sells beer and wine.
(Michael Krabbenhoeft/mkrabbenhoeft@saukvalley.com)
Melissa Kinchiuso, 33, of Decatur, fills a bag of popcorn before the movies Aug. 23, 2013, opening night for Sterling Theater.

STERLING – The Sterling Theater is undergoing a management change that officials hope will bring a more local flavor to the brew and view.

The city has cut ties with Skip Huston, owner of the Theater Management Group, and General Manager Tim O’Brien has been running the theater at 402 Locust St., City Manager Scott Shumard said.

Shumard said Huston was behind in his payments for the building that is owned by the Greater Sterling Development Corp.

“We arrived at an agreement for him to to leave the theater,” Shumard said.

While the financial situation was a factor, it was not the only problem. There were philosophical differences, and many in the community felt that Huston had strayed from delivering the type of experience they had wanted.

Huston had first-run status at the theater, but had said he wanted to run more than just blockbusters, believing he needed to mix it up to compete with Carmike Sauk Valley 8 theater.

In April, Huston told Sauk Valley Media there was no money to be made in showing alternative, non-mainstream movies.

GSDC is looking for a long-term solution to the management vacuum that has been created. Two possibilities are being considered, one prominently featuring O’Brien.

“We’re looking at finding another outside buyer or grooming Tim to do it,” Shumard said. “He’s covered it from a media angle, and he’s done the day-to-day management.” O’Brien was an entertainment editor at Sauk Valley Newspapers.

The city would prefer local management, and has had initial conversations with O’Brien about eventually selling him the theater, Shumard said.

“Once he’s allowed to do things his way, I think with Tim having that local angle, things will be very different at the theater,” Shumard said.

Sterling Main Street Executive Director Janna Groharing said she is excited by the prospects of getting the theater in sync with the city’s original vision for the project.

“I think we’ll quickly see a turnaround, and events that were more in line with our initial expectations for the theater,” Groharing said.

Thursday night’s Popcorn Pajama Party was a good example of things to come, Groharing said. Kids who came to the premiere of “Planes: Fire & Rescue” in their pj’s received free popcorn.

“I think we’ll see different films, and events for things like the Fiesta celebration,” she said. “The big thing is to get the community involved; that’s was we were hoping for originally.”

On Dec. 3, 2012, the council approved a $550,000 loan to GSDC to buy the theater from former owner Ralph White. White had bought the building in 2009, but it had been vacant since 2007.

White accepted the GSDC offer of $235,000, and the rest of the city’s loan was designated for remodeling. Huston then signed a contract to buy the building from GSDC over an 11-year period.

After more than a year of preparations, the theater opened Aug. 23, 2013. The two-screen movie house serves beer and wine, non-alcoholic beverages and theater favorites such as nachos, popcorn, and Chicago-style hot dogs.

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