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TOPIC: So you want to renovate an old theater? Wichita

So you want to renovate an old theater? Wichita 13 May 2009 11:34 #31517

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Old Town Warren begins to see changes
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The Wichita Eagle
« 1 of 1» Jeff Tuttle/File photo
The Old Town Warren Theatre
WICHITA - Work has begun on a $1 million renovation of the Old Town Warren Theatre, creating what its owners believe is the first all-digital movie theater in Kansas.

When completed in late June, the Old Town Warren will be converted into a 7-auditorium digital multi-purpose facility offering everything from movies to Super Bowl showings and the latest in interactive gaming.

It's a new, more focused business model that owner Bill Warren hopes will be profitable within two years.

"Was it a sports bar? Was it a movie theater? Was it a restaurant?" Warren said, chuckling. "I mean, the old theater was suffering from the Sybil effect."

Wichita taxpayers loaned Warren and his partners $6 million almost a year ago for the struggling theater to avoid closing, a move that Warren said would have damaged the growth prospects of his theater business.

"Ask yourself how many downtown theaters there are in the country," he said. "The answer is maybe 25.

"Fact is, it's just much harder to make a downtown theater work than it is one in the suburbs. We're good at running theaters. We're not good at running a sports bar."

In an era of tight credit and heavy banking regulation, Warren said a failure downtown could short-circuit his rapid expansion plans locally and in the Midwest.

"Quite frankly, we didn't want to shut it down," he said. "We didn't want to admit failure. Plus, the bankers look at that and they go crazy."

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer called the renovated theater a "necessary plank" of the city's efforts to draw and keep more visitors downtown.

The theater opened in 2003 as an anchor tenant in Old Town Square, a mix of restaurants and retail shops near Second and Mead streets.

"We need to get more people engaged in walking and spending their time in the downtown area, and this will provide that," Brewer said.

Theater features

The renovated theater will include seven auditoriums seating 802 guests, including a private screening room with free-standing recliners in the Oscars skybox area accommodating up to 50 guests.

The skybox will have its own digital screen and seating available for rent. It's frequently used by alumni groups from Oklahoma and Nebraska to watch college football, Warren said.

Food and drink will continue to be available in all seven theaters using a computerized hand-held ordering system that should smooth out service and kitchen issues "in a facility that essentially has about 800 tables," said new manager Craig Wurster.

And it will feature the latest in movie technology, as Warren updates his existing theaters to the level of his latest venture in Moore, Okla.

"With what we're doing at Old Town, we're bringing the theater technology up to the industry's best in digital projection," said Bill Menke, Warren vice president.

The move will upgrade picture quality in all theaters to high-definition digital, including softer and more consistent colors, Menke said.

They are putting in a new sound system and may add 3-D in two of the auditoriums.

Oscar's Sports Bar is already gone, replaced by a multi-use auditorium. Possible uses include movies, catered banquets, business retreats sporting events, video concerts and party rental.

About $500,000 is being invested in a redecoration, including carpeting and wall coverings, with another half-million going toward digital projection equipment, a process slowed as film studio officials discussed and later rejected a theater industry proposal to subsidize the equipment across the country, Warren said.

Planning for the renovations has been time-consuming, Warren said.

"I'm slow," he said. "But the point is, we need to get this right. We've had a lot of things to map out, and I've gone about it very carefully, very systematically. We've looked at a lot of downtown theaters, what's good and bad about them."

The reason for the caution: The theater and sports bar lost in excess of $100,000 each of its five years in existence, Warren said.

"I don't want to say exactly, but more than $100,000 each year," he said. "Sometimes a lot more. We had to find a way to reduce our overhead to keep the place open."

Attendance lags badly on weeknights, and movie start times have ignored late-night moviegoers, Warren said, but no decisions have been made on pushing start times back.

"We're looking at doing some discounting to draw people down on weeknights... and become more of a destination stop," Warren said.

The remaining $5 million of the city's loan has been used to pay off the original construction note, Warren said.

The entire $6 million -- interest free for the first five years and at 1.25 percent a year for the next five -- has been guaranteed by Warren and theater partners Mark Hutton, Andrew Hutton, Dave Wells, Steve Barrett and Dave Burk.
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