Tuesday, April 02, 2002

Battle of theaters looms

Movie complex proposals for suburbs attract attention

By Ken Alltucker, kalltucker@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Forget the allure of the big screen.

        For real drama, watch the battle unfolding between two Columbus developers who promise to be the first to deliver a state-of-the-art movie theater — along with trendy retail shops — to booming West Chester Township.

        • Steiner and Associates has teamed with Greater Cincinnati's dominant theater chain, Showcase Cinemas, which wants to protect its turf from competitors.

        • Continental Real Estate Cos. promises to soon reveal its theater chain, as well as other large retailers and restaurants, to anchor an open-air mall at Interstate 75 and Union Centre Boulevard.

        The developers last week each unveiled theater plans; neither has signed leases obligating the movie chains to open. That will come soon, both say. Each firm sees southern Butler County and its affluent households as a prime market to tap.

        Yet West Chester officials, developers and others agree that two theaters are unlikely.

        “I suspect only one movie theater will go up,” Trustee Catherine Stoker said. “I don't think there's enough market for more than one 20-screen movie theater.”

        Continental president David Kass says his firm has an edge. It's busily installing infrastructure on a 100-acre site, named the Streets of West Chester. It will include retail, restaurants, apartments, condos and some office.

        Steiner's partner, Neyer Properties, owns a 75-acre site at I-75 and Cincinnati-Dayton Road slated to become West Chester Market Square. Two tenants have agreed to anchor the square: Galyan's, a sporting goods superstore, and Showcase Cinemas, owned by one of the nation's largest theater chains, Dedham, Mass.-based National Amusements.

        National Amusements, which operates 10 theaters and 120 screens in Greater Cincinnati and several more in Dayton, has a reputation for aggressively protecting its territory, industry analysts say.

        “Usually, all National Amusements has to do is sneeze, and everybody else drops their plans,” said Larry Thomas, who books films for independent theaters.

        That was the case in 1996 when Milwaukee-based Marcus Corp. vowed to deliver the first modern cinema to booming southern Warren County. National Amusements countered with plans for a 20-screen theater with modern upgrades such as terraced-style stadium seating and advanced sound systems. Marcus dropped its plans.

        A Marcus spokesman would not say whether National Amusements influenced its decision.“We obviously did not go ahead with those plans,” Carlo Petrick, Marcus' spokesman, said. “We evaluated our plans and decided it would be best for us to expand in our existing locations.”

        National Amusements, too, never built a large new cinema it promised off Montgomery Road, just north of Fields Ertel Road. The firm opened a 12-screen Showcase Cinemas at Kings Island. National chains usually build just one theater every four to six miles. There are exceptions, however.

        In California, rival chains built theaters across the street from one other during a nationwide cinema building boom of the late 1990s. One theater had 30 screens. The other had 22 screens. Both are still operating and battling for first-run films.

        Showcase Cinemas' has invested tens of millions of dollars renovating or building new theaters at Kings Island, Springdale, Forest Fair Mall, Dent and Milford. The chain sees the West Chester development as a logical fit to protect its strength along I-75, including Dayton.

        But other chains have made inroads in Greater Cincinnati.

        Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment Inc. opened a 20-screen cinema last year at Newport on the Levee — which, interestingly, was developed by Steiner and Associates.

        AMC spokesman Rick King said Newport is the second-highest grossing theater in Greater Cincinnati, trailing only the renovated Showcase Cinemas in Springdale. He would not release sales figures.

        He declined to say whether AMC is the unidentified chain eyeing West Chester. “All of that is speculation, and it is AMC's policy not to comment, confirm or deny ... prior to the release of any executed document,” Mr. King said.

        West Chester officials say they still need to negotiate details with Steiner, including a proposal to use $40 million in property taxes expected to be generated by Market Square to build parking garages.

        West Chester Township Administrator Dave Gully wants Steiner to provide more details such as traffic and community impact studies. “We need to see a semifinal development plan and they need to nail down what exactly they are going to do,” Mr. Gully said. “It's not that they haven't provided it, but they aren't far along yet in the process.”

        Staff writer Jennifer Edwards contributed to this report.


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