Can a movie theater spark development in a small town neighboring one of Maine’s most popular ski and golf resort areas?
Folks in Bethel, Maine, population about 2,600, hope the new Gem Theater in the Bethel Station development will do just that. If the 22-acre commercial subdivision near Bethel’s downtown attracts as much interest as the Kickstarter campaign for the theater, further development is a sure bet.
The movie theater’s new owners, Beth Weisberger and her husband, Wade Kavanaugh, raised more than $35,000 on Kickstarter(https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/610049959/lets-light-up-the-gem/description), a web-based crowd-funding organization used by entrepreneurs and small businesses to raise money. The successful campaign, along with $20,000 raised through various events and special movie screenings matched by $20,000 from the Sunday River ski and golf resort, helped purchase the new most up-to-date digital equipment necessary to show the latest feature length and documentary films.
The Gem Theater will begin showing first-run movies in late January. Kavanaugh, an artist, said he will also screen independent films and likely will host other types of entertainment. He plans to display local art and photography in the theater lobby.
“Any vital, small town needs an arts center,” said Kavanaugh, whose new theater is in the home of the former Casablanca Cinema, which closed in 2012.
Town officials hope the theater will spark additional development at Bethel Station, a commercial subdivision developed in the mid-1990s with millions of dollars in private and state infrastructure investment. The land was developed and a new 400-foot railway platform built in anticipation of new rail passenger service between Montreal and Portland.
The rail service is still a work in progress, leaving the development site, which is at the junction of Maine State Highway Routes 2 and 26, largely unused except for a Norway Savings Bank (class A quality) office building and the New Gem Theater. For about three years, a private train sponsored by Coors Light – the Silver Bullet Express Ski Train – ferried skiers between Portland and Bethel during ski season. That service ended in 1996.
Railroad service was critical to Bethel’s growth in the 19th century. The town was founded in 1774 and was essentially a sleepy farming community until the Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, which ran freight and passenger trains between Portland and Montreal, opened a station in 1851. That spurred development of a local wood products industry.
The railroad’s arrival also made it possible for summer tourists from Boston and New York to enjoy western Maine’s beauty and explore the White Mountains, which straddle the Maine-New Hampshire border. That natural beauty continues to draw visitors in the summer, and the Sunday River ski and golf resort, just nine miles away, is one of the fastest growing alpine ski and golf destinations in the East.
Communities in western Maine and eastern New Hampshire are still working to restore rail passenger service between Portland and Montreal, and they are making progress, according to Anthony J. Donovan, an expert in development around passenger train stations and REALTOR® with KW Commercial / Keller Williams Real Estate. Based in Portland and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, KW Commercial is working to foster new development at Bethel Station and other station locations in New England.
The Androscoggin, Oxford and Coos County Passenger Rail Coalition of local municipal and business representatives meets regularly and works with state legislators and transportation officials to advance the cause. In fact, the Maine legislature has approved $500,000 to complete an operational rail plan to improve track between Portland and Auburn, Donovan said.
The opening of the Gem Theater at Bethel Station fits another piece into the rail-service puzzle. The purchase of the 14,000-square-foot Gem Theater building leaves remaining four lots available for purchase and development in the Bethel Station subdivision. The lots may be used for lodging, restaurants, retail, office, housing and other professional business and tourism services. The site has approximately of $10 million of infrastructure investment in public sewer and water, a stormwater retention system, sidewalks, curb cuts, electric street lighting, paved roads and some paved parking in place.
In addition to the Gem Theater, the Bethel Early Learning Center, the Norway Savings Bank and the Bethel Chamber of Commerce are located in Bethel Station. Bethel Village shopping and attractions, adjacent to the station site, and Gould academy are walking distance from the train station.
“With the opening of the Gem Theater as a place for the community to come together, the identity of this town and the economy of the region will benefit. The potential for convincing state and federal entities to fund and restore passenger rail is enhanced. And the Bethel Station development is now more attractive for development,” Donovan said.
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