When J-Sun Bailey moved to Belfast earlier this year, he saw a sign announcing that a 105-year-old theater was for sale. The $1.6 million asking price was well out of his range, but he couldn’t shake the idea of owning the Colonial Theater.
Months later, a group of locals spearheaded by Bailey has assembled in hopes of establishing a nonprofit to buy the downtown staple. If it happens, the Colonial would become the latest in a line of small, independent cinemas in Maine to make the nonprofit switch.
“It’s a gem for Belfast, and this could be a way of ensuring it stays that way,” Bailey said.
The group is still in its infancy, with no official name or nonprofit incorporation, but there’s enough interest to convince Bailey it’s worth pursuing. About 30 people showed up for the first organizational meeting in mid-November, and more meetings will follow as the group organizes and explores its options. The turnout was enough to show Bailey there’s interest to push forward.
“Now, we’ll see if we can get some traction and make this happen,” Bailey said.
The Colonial Theater opened its doors in 1912, on the same day the Titanic set sail on its first and final voyage. The original building burned in 1923, but the owner quickly built a replacement in the same spot.
Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley and his wife, Therese Bagnardi, purchased the theater on a whim in 1995 when the previous owners retired. They launched a major renovation campaign to restore some of its art-deco charm and converted the two-screen theater into a three-screen venue by reopening a back portion of the original theater that had been walled off for years and used for storage.
Hurley, 68, is trying to shed some of his multiple business ventures and slow down. In 2016, he sold the Temple Theatre in Houlton, which he’d owned for 14 years, to a Houlton native who moved back from New Jersey to buy the building for an undisclosed price.
The Colonial has been for sale for more than two years with an original listing price of $2.2 million. After a couple mortgages were paid down, the listing dropped to $1.6 million, but a suitable buyer hasn’t surfaced.
“It’s still working, it’s still profitable,” Hurley said. “It doesn’t need to be saved.”
He said his decision to sell isn’t prompted by financial struggles or changes in the market, but by his desire to reduce his business obligations and ensure the Colonial has a future. Hurley’s concern is that the next buyer might not know what they’re doing, or change things in a way that turns away locals. But if a group of fans and advocates of the theater were to rally behind it and take ownership, that downslide becomes far less likely, Hurley said.
Then Bailey came to town and expressed interest in buying the theater, and together they broached the nonprofit idea.
Across Maine and the nation, droves of small theaters have been making similar switches to nonprofit status. In many cases, it has helped struggling theaters keep the screens lit by reinventing how they do business.
One doesn’t have to look far from Belfast to find a theater that’s made the conversion. The Strand in Rockland, The Grand in Ellsworth, The Alamo in Bucksport, The Criterion in Bar Harbor, The Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft and Railroad Square Cinema in Waterville are just a few venues that have made the jump.
In a unique arrangement, the town of Pittsfield owns its theater. In 1975, the struggling cinema closed and was purchased by a bank and Cianbro Corp. for a mere $6,000. Those companies absorbed the theater’s debts and later donated it to a new nonprofit entity, the Pittsfield Community Theatre Association. That group ran the venue for two years, until the town bought it for $24,000 in 1977.
Town officials saw it as a vital asset in a downtown that had seen its struggles and would likely see more, and wanted to ensure it stayed as a tool in keeping the community together. To this day, it’s the only municipally owned and operated theater in the state.
In places where large multiplex cinemas have popped up in recent decades, the competition has made it difficult for smaller community cinemas to fill enough seats to stay viable. More recently, online streaming services have kept more people at home.
The Strand’s nonprofit conversion happened in the wake of controversy. In 1997, a multiplex opened in neighboring Thomaston, putting strain on the smaller theater, which struggled to compete. After outlasting two rival theaters in town, the Strand fell on hard times.
Four years later, the multiplex bought The Strand, and the theater went dark and fell into disrepair. The multiplex owners refused to renovate or reopen the building, outraging locals. The state filed an antitrust lawsuit in 2004. The multiplex sold the theater later that year to a family that spent 18 months overhauling the space before reopening it to the community.
In 2012, a group of locals formed a nonprofit called Friends of The Strand and took over the business.
Theaters across the nation took a big hit earlier this decade when movie companies switched from distributing their movies on traditional film to sending them out digitally. The move forced theaters across the nation to invest in expensive digital projectors if they wanted to continue showing new “films.”
That conversion cost the Colonial about $180,000, according to Hurley. He sought donations from the community to cover a portion of that cost, and people stepped up.
For some cinemas, such as Maine Coast Mall Cinemas in Ellsworth, the cost was too much, and they had to sell or shut down. Others survived by asking locals for help or changed the way they did business.
“Often, these nonprofit theaters are in communities that are very challenged and the town wants to keep it alive,” Hurley said. “That’s not the case in Belfast, but having a nonprofit would ensure things don’t take a turn.”
Why a nonprofit?
The nonprofit model can carry several benefits for theaters. Among the most notable are the revenue streams nonprofit status opens up and the stability that can come with group oversight and decision making.
First and foremost, Bailey said, nonprofits are eligible for many grants to which a for-profit cinema wouldn’t have access. That money can finance things ranging from new programs to building renovations. Nonprofit tax exemptions are another plus.
Nonprofits status also frees theaters to do more fundraising. Many nonprofit theaters have membership options in which people can pay an annual fee to support the venue in exchange for a certain number of free tickets, a discounted rate, or promotional swag. Others launch regular fundraising drives.
“The biggest thing we’ve found is the importance of bolstering your community. They need to buy into this,” Jessie Davis, executive director of the nonprofit that runs the Strand, said.
Davis said the Strand may never again be a “moneymaker,” but that’s not really the point. Its deficits are shrinking, and having a group of community-minded people behind the scenes wanting to preserve the cinema in their town brings a new sense of security and foresight.
The financial support of locals through donations and memberships helps ensure that the theater has enough revenue to keep going, even if it isn’t raking in cash year over year.
“We’re definitely set up for long-term sustainability,” Davis said.
To receive a nonprofit designation, a theater has to have a mission statement, form a board of directors, file annual reports, and offer some community benefit that’s not required of other privately owned theaters. That can mean hosting fundraisers for other community organizations or charitable causes, showing films or hosting cultural events that others don’t, or hosting a free movie night so everyone in the community can experience the cinema.
“We’re hoping this push will solidify into something,” Bailey said of the nonprofit push. “It would be a great way to ensure the theater is something people here want to support for a long time.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.
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