CONSTRUCTION & DEVELOPMENT: PARKING: Lack of it is driving theaters–and revenues–out of our downtowns

Theater marquees are disappearing from downtowns across the country. Downtown parking continues to be at a premium and theater owners are building on the outskirts of towns where larger lots are located.

In the wake of change, downtowns are experiencing the loss of theater revenue and increased competition with malls and superstores.

Leonard and Elaine Dawson, owners of several area theatres, know that if they don’t build a larger theater with plenty of parking in Petoskey, someone else will. The Bellaire couple has expanded the downtown theater as much as possible, and searched for two years to find enough land to accommodate moviegoers and their vehicles.

Carlin Smith, Petoskey Downtown Coordinator, said the city could come up with parking for the Dawsons, but it was a hike from the theater.

“Our downtowns were designed during a period when automobiles were not king,” Smith said. “Now when we go anywhere to shop, catering to our cars is our first priority because we have to find a place to park the thing.”

Few know this truth better than the Dawsons.

“People like to get out of their car and see the front door,” Leonard says. “They may actually be walking farther, but at least they can see the door.”

The Dawsons aren’t the only theater owners designing and/or moving theaters to accommodate America’s main mode of transportation. According to a national poll, 43 percent of moviegoers choose a theater based on adequate parking, Elaine says. As new theaters pop up on the outskirts of town, parking is stacked in front of the theater, never on distant sides or behind the building.

The Dawsons own theaters in Petoskey, Gaylord, Cheboygan, Mackinaw City and Bellaire. Their first major move out of a downtown came in Gaylord. They built a new, six-screen theater on the city’s west M-32 entrance, an expanding section bordered by Home Depot and Wal-Mart.

At first, the Dawsons kept their downtown projector rolling. But the economic principle of supply and demand prompted the closing of Gaylord’s downtown theater 18 months later.

“People would not come to the downtown theater,” Elaine says, noting that even the newest shows weren’t drawing a crowd at their original screen. However, when they would move the same movie to the new theater, ticket sales would increase.

Petoskey residents, with no other cinema in town, do go to the movies, despite the parking problems. In fact, about 195,000 people visited the Gaslight Cinema last year, according to Smith. Four or five blocks would fill with cars on popular movie nights or afternoons, Leonard says. And on rainy summer days, the streets would be packed with drivers patrolling the streets, hoping to be the first to see someone abandoning a treasured space. Parents are often seen dropping off their family and then showing up 30 minutes later after finding a parking spot.

By December, there will be no more parking hassles or waiting out in the rain for the doors to open. Moviegoers will be flowing into the new, six-screen structure. But the departure of the theater–and its nearly 200,000 visitors last year–is causing concern for business owners in downtown Petoskey.

“We’ve seen it coming for a couple of years now,” says Rudolf Burgherr III, the night manager at Roast & Toast, a coffee shop and eatery located near the Gaslight Cinema. The “movie crowd” usually added 50 to 100 per weekend night to the shop’s head count. Between 20 and 40 customers would come in for specialty coffee and snacks on the week nights.

Although Burgherr knows the number of patrons donning their doorstep is likely to decrease when the theater makes its move, he understands the Dawsons’ decision.

“It’s a smart business move for them,” he commented.

“They gave the downtown a really good look and a fair shake,” Smith added.

‘Change and upheaval’

The decisions by business owners to come and go are constantly challenging the livelihood of downtowns. Stores are interdependent on the mix of shops, restaurants and activities around them. A theater brings people into town during the evenings, which helps support restaurants and arts venues.

“The theater moving will definitely have an impact on downtown Petoskey,” Smith says. “We know that a segment of those people (moviegoers) shop, dine or both. The challenge we have is how to turn this into an opportunity instead of a threat.”

Christopher Hebel, Gaylord Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, refers to this type of challenge as “change and upheaval.”

“Gaylord has lost the ambience of its downtown marquee and theatergoers milling through the downtown during evening hours. A coffee shop a few steps down the street from the cinema has closed, but it has gained a new furniture store in the old theater building.”

Hebel says he’s heard a great deal of positive feedback about the Dawson’s new theater and its digital surround sound, additional screens and more comfortable seating.

“When something moves, you have to focus energy and creativity into filling that hole,” adds Tom Johnson, Northern Lakes Economic Alliance Executive Director. (Refer to the sidebar for his list of ways to keep money flowing into a downtown area.)

Meeting the need

Downtown business owners and Chamber representatives know they need to find ways to draw people downtown. As a result, parking projects are some of the most aggressive changes being made in downtown areas. Both Petoskey and Traverse City have been working on parking plans for years. Rob Bacigalupi, Traverse City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Deputy Director, says his office is pushing to add two parking structures downtown.

Suburban growth spurts weren’t invented in Traverse City, but they were seen there well before the more northerly communities in northwest Michigan. When construction of the Grand Traverse Mall was pending in 1990, the DDA hired Hyett Palma, Inc. to do a market analysis on Traverse City. The study showed that the mall would draw certain businesses out of the downtown, such as theaters, car dealerships and larger franchise retail shops that often anchor malls, Bacigalupi says. Merchants and DDA members were anxious about the future of the downtown; vacancy rates were already high.

After the mall opened, the study’s predictions became reality. Some merchants were moving their businesses into suburban developments and the study was predicting a gloomy future for downtown.

“It starts to squeeze the niches tighter and tighter,” Bacigalupi says.

However, the DDA began formulating a marketing plan that focused on attracting the types of businesses Hyett Palma indicated would thrive in a downtown setting. They include retail, restaurants, arts and entertainment, and home accessory shops.

“Some good, successful home accessory businesses did come into the downtown,” Bacigalupi says, noting the presence of The Lighting Center, Professional Office Furniture, Expressions, Cedar Creek and Firehouse Fair.

In addition to drawing the kinds of businesses that fair well downtown, the mix of stores lining the streets is important.

Experts say that downtowns should welcome residential living above stores, provide office space for area businesses, including governmental centers, and seek evening entertainment to extend the flow of patrons eating at restaurants and gazing at storefronts.

“We have tried to turn the downtown into a full-service downtown that offers more than retail shops,” Bacigalupi says.

Communities who are investing in the future of their downtowns are hiring professionals, such as DDA employees, downtown coordinators and Chamber directors to focus on enhancing their offerings.

Bacigalupi says merchants can’t survive on tourism alone; they need community members to support them through on-going changes and challenges.

The experience

In the past decade, suburban development has been slowing, Bacigalupi says. He believes there’s been an evolution of thought regarding downtowns. Communities such as Acme are planning village centers, which are essentially the creation of downtowns in communities experiencing new development.

An example of this can be seen at Bay Harbor, a luxury community outside Petoskey. The development includes a variety of stores that provide shopping opportunities for residents living in newly-constructed homes or condominiums.

According to Bacigalupi, the experience includes walking from store to store and being introduced to products that often aren’t available at large retail centers.

“The survival of downtown is experience,” says Bryan Crough, Traverse City DDA Executive Director.

Both Bacigalupi and Smith know the phrase well and use it as they work to draw new shops downtown, schedule and support activities such as concerts in the park, Christmas open houses, gallery walks, parades and festivals.

“What do you do as a downtown coordinator to compete with all of this development?” Smith asks. “You provide very high quality, hands-on customer service. You also create fun and activities downtown.” BN