by Chris Harris
Like a slow-moving film plot, progress on the long-defunct Virginia Cinema seems to drag. Like the quest of any movie hero, the road to renovation is filled with obstacles and potential pitfalls.
But film-lovers know that the cavalry always rides in to save the day ... and local officials are hoping to find a little extra help from out of town as well.
The offices of the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation hosted a couple of special visitors on Wednesday: Emily West and Heath Seymour from Elizabethtown, Ky.
Apropos to their town’s on-screen heritage (given the 2005 movie “Elizabethtown,” based on the western Kentucky community), the two were on hand to help share their own experiences renovating a deserted movie theater and turning it into something citizens can be proud of — the same thing Gib Gosser, executive director of the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation (DSDC), hopes can be done with the Virginia Cinema on East Mt. Vernon Street.
“The Virginia Cinema project has really been floundering over the last six or seven years,” said Gosser. “We’ve been trying to get it off the ground and there’s not been much progress.”
Enter West and Seymour. West is the executive director of the State Theater in Elizabethtown — its version of the Virginia Cinema, a grand old movie house that had fallen into disrepair after it closed in the early 1980s — and Seymour is Elizabethtown’s counterpart to Gosser, as executive director at Elizabethtown Hardin County Heritage Council.
“We decided we would ask some people who had made progress (on their own renovation projects) to come in and see what works and what doesn’t,” said Gosser. He mentioned theater enthusiast Don Elmore and committee head Al Blakley, Jr., as leading the charge to help get these expert opinions into town.
West and Seymour shared with locals that the State Theater — a facility built about 70 years ago — is now being used to show classic movies once or twice per month. They also have traveling shows come in and, possibly their most successful feature, stand-up comedy acts.
The State Theater differs significantly in some key ways from the Virginia Cinema, however. The main difference is the space — the State Theater’s renovation also included an adjacent community center, for meetings, wedding receptions, and the like, and also a smaller second theater that’s used for community theatre-type events.
The grand total? $6 million to bring the State Theater back to life.
“They got $3 million from their city council and another $3 million from their tourist commission,” said Gosser. “The city kind of pushed the (renovation) idea and the ball started rolling and the tourist commission asked to join in. We haven’t had that kind of good fortune in Somerset.”
Part of the reason is because Elizabethtown is more similar in some ways to Burnside than Somerset. Despite a population of more than 28,500 — making it well over twice the size of Somerset — Elizabethtown has remained a fourth-class city, a designation typically held by cities with populations between 3,000 and 8,000. Somerset, for instance is a third-class city — higher in the classification system than a city with significantly more people.
Being fourth-class, however, allows Elizabethtown to collect a restaurant tax, similar to what Burnside enacted after the 2004 restaurant referendum allowing the sale of alcohol by the drink in restaurants.
“A third-class city can’t impose a restaurant tax,” said Gosser. “There’s legislation right now with the state General Assembly that would allow all cities to do that, but as of right now, Somerset can’t.”
This is something Somerset has been preparing for recently — Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler, during a workshop meeting held on Jan. 17, told councilors that the city should prepare to take advantage of the possibility of a restaurant tax becoming a viable revenue option for the town — but it’s not been a tool in the town’s arsenal so far.
For Elizabethtown? Their 2 percent restaurant tax generates about $300,000 per month — and helped make the State Theater’s rebirth a reality.
“That’s how the tourism commission (in Elizabethtown) was able to write that check,” said Gosser.
The Virginia Cinema project would be significantly cheaper — between about $1.5 and $2 million. However, “that’s where we’ve been stumbling,” said Gosser. “We don’t have $2 million, much less $6 million.”
The DSDC has looked into grant money in the past, but that kind of government grant opportunity is drying up in the current economic and political climate. Fundraising events haven’t brought in enough to get the job done, and while private benefactors have been considered a possibility, “nobody’s ready to write the check yet,” said Gosser.
Among some of the interesting tidbits shared by the Elizabethtown visitors was the fact that Somerset’s ideas about how to use the Virginia Cinema once it’s been restored may not be the most profitable.
“Some have thought that there would be good money to be made in showing classic movies,” said Gosser. “(Seymour) said that those are about a break-even proposition. We were surprised that their big profit-maker was the comedians. They said they have a comedian every month and do well with it.”
About 25 individuals — not just DSDC board members but interested parties from the community as well — came to the meeting to hear what the Elizabethtown visitors had to say.
Gosser said the DSDC hopes to bring in similar parties from other communities with successful older theaters still in use in some capacity, including Ashland, Bowling Green, Frankfort, and Winchester.
West and Seymour also got to peek inside the Virginia Cinema, its floor covered in dust and debris but hopeful for a new lease on life, and said it’s in very similar shape as the State Theater was before its relatively recent renovation.
So does that mean that the Virginia Cinema has similar promise for the future?
“Yes, well, we just need to find $6 million,” said Gosser. “We don’t have the other two pieces of the puzzle (the city council and tourism commission aid that Elizabethtown had), but we don’t have $2 million either.”