A 90-year-old “movie palace” that has gathered cobwebs in downtown Shawnee since the mid 1970s may come back to life next spring, if the city can reach an agreement with a new group of potential owners about a public investment in the renovation.
Three Shawnee businessmen have a contract to buy the Aztec Theater with plans to bring specialty and classic movies and possibly other events back as early as April 2018. The building, at 11119 Johnson Drive, has been used for storage and bears the “Fine Arts” name on its marquee.
Jeff and Christopher Calkins and Bruce Young are all old enough to have remembered seeing a movie at the Aztec before it went dark in 1974. Their plan is fueled partly by nostalgia and partly by improvements in nearby Nieman Road designed to bring more people into the downtown, Jeff Calkins said.
“I’d love to see it become the main anchor for downtown Shawnee, that one shining piece everyone comes to see,” he said. The street improvements on Nieman were made with an eye toward pedestrians, so Calkins sees the theater as a way of bringing people out and encouraging eateries and other business.
The Calkins run a longtime family electrical supply business and Young has run a flooring business and has experience in the music performance scene.
But the group, known as Aztec Group LLC, will have some serious negotiations and time pressure ahead. Their contract with Aztec owner Wade Williams has already been extended once and is due to expire Oct. 2, Calkins told a recent city council committee meeting.
The developers and the city council are haggling over a proposal that the city provide $500,000 from its economic development fund for the extensive renovation the building will need. They will get private financing from their own resources for part of the $250,000 purchase price and another commercial loan for start-up operating expenses.
Some city council members were lukewarm about the proposal at the committee meeting. Council member Stephanie Meyer and others expressed concern about putting up money for renovations without some stake in the finished building. She and other council members were wary of a deal that could use city funds to improve a building that could later be sold at a profit.
They asked for “clawbacks” that would either give the city some part of ownership of the building or profits of the sale, should the new owners not completely carry through with their plan. Council member Jeff Vaught suggested an arrangement that requires the developers to hold onto ownership of the building for a set period or face a penalty.
Meyer was also concerned that the city would need to move some of the cost of the Nieman Road project out of the economic development fund and into bonded indebtedness to come up with the money.
But Calkins assured council members he’d always assumed there would be some protection written into the deal for the city, and that he had no problem with their suggestions.
Despite their concerns, many on the council expressed hope that an agreement could be reached. As one of the most visible buildings in the downtown, the theater has the potential to become an anchor for the business district. They also did not want to see the building continue to sit shuttered as a storage area.
Council member Jim Neighbor, who was absent, sent a statement calling theater development a “huge positive” and urging the city to continue discussions with the developers. Council member Mickey Sandifer agreed there should be a clawback provision, but said he hoped some arrangement could be worked out.
“I would love to see the theater open,” he said. If that doesn’t happen, “it’s going to become a storage facility again. The individual who owns it doesn’t need the money. And we’re just going to have an empty building, without a marquee on it this time…Do we want that for the next 20-25 years?”
The Aztec showed silent films and talkies when it opened, as well as live entertainment. It went through a series of owners, including Dickinson Theaters, but has not been a working theater since 1974. A different plan was in the works earlier this year for a Shawnee couple to run the theater with a non-profit group. But that plan and the sale of the theater later fell through.
It has a single screen and seating capacity for 300. The developers business plan calls for movie screenings for special groups and clubs, art films and film festivals and partnership with Shawnee Town 1929 and other vintage theaters in the area.