Small towns, big picture: Cinemas at the heart of downtown revivals


The cinema and the downtown used to be as synonymous with each other as popcorn and movies. The downtown was the destination point of the city, and the movie theatre was the very heart of the downtown.

It was no coincidence that as cinemas moved to the outskirts of cities, the downtowns began to deteriorate. However, in the last 15 years every major American city has developed new cinema complexes and renovated existing ones within their downtowns to help bring people back to the city’s historic center. These large cinema developments have proven to be very successful in these major markets. But what about the smaller markets in towns that don’t warrant a 3,000-seat cineplex?

As sprawling development has left many small towns with a core that suffers from stagnation and blight, many planning officials have implemented urban-renewal programs that provide small-business owners with incentives to push development in their historic downtowns. Not surprisingly, movie theatres are the perfect catalyst for economic growth and urban development. They provide one of the few sources of entertainment that children, teenagers, families, and adults of all ages and interests can enjoy. They bring in large crowds that are necessary to support vibrant commerce, diverse businesses and interests, and establish the strong communities and cultures that once defined America’s small towns.

A cinema is capable of thriving anywhere, but often the most successful urban-renewal programs in small towns have to address the need for infrastructure upgrades, and provide incentives to ensure that exhibitors can affordably develop and profit in a blighted downtown. Incentives are often in the form of interest-free loans for building improvements, assistance on the costs of utility and life-safety upgrades, the development of a public parking lot to be used by new businesses, and occasionally land or redevelopment money will be given to a theatre owner. Through these programs, they are creating opportunities for exhibitors to not only build a theatre, but to thrive in these smaller markets. The Design Collective has completed two cinema projects this year in small towns that have each implemented such incentives to revive the heart of their community.

The construction of the Canby 8 Cinema was completed in October 2009, and has so far been the most successful commercial accomplishment of the city’s Urban Renewal Plan. Canby is a rural town in Oregon, located about 18 miles south of Portland. Although the population of Canby has grown by 20 percent in the past decade, Canby has been struggling for years to bring people and businesses back to the downtown core. In many instances, property values were declining and the tax revenues produced by the area were well below their potential. In February 2006, the Urban Renewal Agency began considering the necessity of an entertainment anchor to achieve their goals for redevelopment, and not surprisingly the city desired a cinema.

Canby successfully recruited Chuck Nakvasil, the owner of Cinemagic Theatres LLC, to develop the cinema after making street and sidewalk improvements and providing for the theatre a 154-car public parking lot. The Design Collective worked within the city’s design guidelines to create a cinema that acknowledges and emphasizes the pedestrian traffic that connects to the downtown core. The design also captures the historic feel of main street cinemas from the past.

Canby Cinema 8 has so far exceeded expectations in popularity with residents, and other businesses in the area such as the grocery store and restaurants have noticed a boost in sales. On Christmas weekend alone, 4,700 people attended movies at the 800-seat cinema, which is remarkable when taking into consideration that the population of Canby is 15,000. With the final construction cost coming to $105 a square foot, Cinemagic has been very profitable and very happy with the quality of the cinema.

The small town of Banning, located 20 miles west of Palm Springs, CA, has also been working to eliminate blight from its historic downtown. It carries the proud name of “Stagecoach Town USA,” and its rich history is reflected in the downtown’s historic architecture.

At the heart of this is the Fox Theatre, originally built in 1928 as a single large auditorium with a stage for vaudeville performances. When the theatre was renovated in the ’70s, the main auditorium was split in half, and the stage was converted into a small screening room. But since that time, the theatre had fallen into disrepair, and was in dire need of a new roof, new furnishings and finishes, as well as important upgrades in life safety and accessibility. Banning’s redevelopment agency recognized that the Fox Theatre was not only the most important historical landmark in the city, but it also had the potential to bring vitality and economic growth back to the city’s main street.

Remodeling the theatre became the top priority of the Redevelopment Program, and the city worked diligently with the owner, Michael Frydrych of Cinema Showcase, to fund a complete overhaul of the interior and exterior. The owner contacted cinema builder R.E. Huffman Corporation, who teamed up with The Design Collective to come up with a design that kept all of the important aspects of the original architecture while embellishing on its ornate features. The original gold-leaf molded sconces in the auditorium and architectural ornamentation on the façade were preserved, while all the interior and exterior surfaces were refinished to give the theatre an entirely new character.

The Fox theatre reopened in November 2009 after an aggressive three-month construction schedule, and has since brought crowds of people back to Banning’s downtown. The completion of the theatre has since sparked the interest of business owners on Banning’s main street to also invest in renovating their buildings, and the Redevelopment Agency’s goals of revitalizing and beautifying their historic center are being realized.

For almost a hundred years, the cinema has proven to be a focal point in every city and a place where all ages and classes can come together to experience the same feeling of wonderment and escapism that motion pictures provide. These small towns have recognized the significance of having a local cinema that kids can walk to and the community can call their own. Because of their desire, determination and persistence, these small towns are opening up a new market in cinema exhibition and guaranteeing that downtown remains the heart of the city.

Contributions by Megan Murdock, Deron Artz and Patricia Wilhelm.
James Blissett is founder of The Design Collective, a Seattle-based architecture firm.
(206-282-2730, Contact R.E. Huffman Corporation at