Hills Theatre restoration is feasible for Historical Society, consultant says

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published March 19, 2014

 The Rochester Avon Historical Society is looking into restoring and reopening the Hills Theatre, shown here in 1961.

The Rochester Avon Historical Society is looking into restoring and reopening the Hills Theatre, shown here in 1961.

Photo provided by the Rochester-Avon Historical Society


ROCHESTER — The historic Hills Theatre in downtown Rochester, 412-416 S. Main St., could one day reopen its doors, according to a report recently commissioned by the Rochester-Avon Historical Society.

Over the last two years, the Rochester-Avon Historical Society has been exploring the idea of restoring and reopening the old 820-seat historic theater with its original name, the Hills Theatre — drawn from Rochester’s slogan, “The Heart of the Hills.

But before beginning the fundraising work needed to get the project going, society members wanted to make sure it was feasible and that it would make good business sense. Last June, the Rochester City Council unanimously approved the reallocation of $15,000 of the city’s Historical Commission capital project budget to be issued in the form of a grant to the Rochester-Avon Historical Society so the society could hire a consultant and an architect to prepare a feasibility study and business plan for the Hills Theatre project.

Over the last 18 months, Wilson — along with a host of others on the Rochester-Avon Historical Society — has been exploring the idea of restoring and reopening the old 820-seat historic theater with its original name, the Hills Theatre.

The theater: then, now and in the future
Built in 1941 by the proprietor of the Avon Theatre, Charles L. Sterns, the Hills Theatre officially opened to the public Jan. 15, 1942, and went dark in 1984 after failing to compete with the many other theaters that had popped up in town in the 1970s. The building was later remodeled as the Main Street Plaza, housing a group of boutique businesses and professional offices, which remains today.

Reverting the space back to a theater shouldn’t be too difficult, according to Wilson, who said the developer who converted the theater into the plaza said the work was done with “a lot of wood and some sand,” and barely any concrete.

Current plans for the 18,060-square-foot building call for reconstructing the 1942 marquee and facade. On the 9,150-square-foot first floor, the society would re-create the original box office between the double doors, and reconstruct the main stage, screen and auditorium with 328 seats — to allow for larger, more comfortable seating.

“The stage is almost 25 feet deep with the screen up and speakers removed, so you’ve got some capacity to do live entertainment,” Gerdom said.

A larger lobby and a concession area with table-and-chair seating, handicap-accessible restrooms, and a new elevator and stairway to serve all three levels would complete the first floor space.

The 5,250-square-foot second floor would house a projection booth and an upscale balcony seating area for the main auditorium, as well as a 50-seat theater with flexible seating and small tables.

“Upstairs, it’s a whole different atmosphere altogether — a place to relax and be in some cozy, comfy seats,” Gerdom said.

The basement of the theater — accessible by some new stairs and an elevator — would house a mechanical room, as well as restrooms.

Environment and feasibility
Gerdom noted that the theater environment is competitive in the area.

“Within 10 miles of the Hills, you have 70 screens, and they are showing all the mainstream stuff ... and the Emagine and AMC 30 represent 40 screens within five miles, so the competitive situation here is very ugly,” he said.

Despite the competition, Gerdom believes the Hills project is feasible and would attract people within a 20-minute drive.

“This can be a very special theater, but it needs to be a very special theater or it’s going to have trouble competing, because there is just a lot out there,” he said. “You have enough (market) capacity to do it, the demographics are very high quality … (but you need to provide) unique offerings in a unique presentation format. You’re going to need to sell (alcoholic) drinks, and you’re going to need to have comfortable seating — because that’s what they are seeing in those theaters around you.”

Instead of showing mainstream films, Gerdom said the Hills should focus on serving the portions of the market demographics not attracted to bigger movie complexes.

“Usually, in a situation like this, where you are up against mainstream films, you look at independent and art house films — and the demographics certainly suggest that’s a good number here, with the education and income levels — but you have The Main (Art Theatre in Royal Oak) and The Maple (Theatre in Bloomfield) just outside a 20 minute drive area, which are both well established,” he noted.

Gerdom admitted that finding the correct programming would be a lot of trial and error, but he suggested using a “best films” philosophy.

“(For the main screen) we’re looking at consistently diverse and entertaining film products, an adult-oriented atmosphere, a wide variety of films — independent, foreign, 3-D, smart films from Hollywood, award-worthy films that tell stories, and films that are provocative, heart-wrenching and heart-warming,” he said.

Themed weeknight films would likely appear on a second, smaller screen on the second floor — including a possible ladies night selection, cinema club picks, singalongs, holiday shows, live concerts, final episodes of popular television series, presidential debates and more.

“One of the concepts behind doing this at all is to provide a reason for people to come down during the week and frequent the restaurants that are pretty busy during the weekends,” Gerdom explained.

The theater would average about 34 showings per week, he said, closing at 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and would have a full-time staff of seven, as well as a part-time staff and volunteers. Tickets would cost between $6 and $8 on the weekend and between $5 and $7 during the week — tickets for 3-D shows would cost an extra $2, and luxury seating would be an extra $4 — and popcorn and pop would cost between $2.50 and $5.

“People need to think of these purchases as helping to support the theater. They are going to be cheaper than going out to Emagine … so this is going to be attractive. But (as for) the films, you are going to have to deal with some issues, in terms of the popularity,” Gerdom explained.

He expects the theater to draw an audience of 1,200 per week, spending an average of $2.50-$3.50 on concessions per person — more if they purchased alcohol, which would be available to those 21 and older on the second floor.

The total construction costs, including all the furnishings, are estimated at $3.246 million — not including the fees associated with purchasing or leasing the building.

As for ownership, the society hopes to purchase the building, rather than lease it, in the hopes of securing grants for the restoration, which are typically only given to those who own a building.

“We would anticipate between $500,000 and $600,000 from the Community Revitalization program of the (Michigan Economic Development Corporation), based on similar projects with the same level of investment,” Gerdom explained.

The annual Hills Theatre operations are really not expected to produce enough revenue to support debt, so Gerdom said project costs have to be paid for up front, through a suggested private fundraising approach.

“The annual operations need to break even, and that’s basically what it does, but not until the second year,” he said. “We think there is going to be some ramp up. What I see is you’re going to have a couple great months right off the bat because everybody is going to want to see it, and then reality sets in, depending on what’s all going on.”

Going forth, Wilson said, the society’s highest priority is fundraising.

“Now we’re going to start raising funds in earnest. Our priority, of course, is to raise funds to acquire the building, because the grants aren’t available until you own the building,” he said.

The society is currently in the process of developing a 501(c)3 that would own and operate the facility.

“The 501(c)3 board will, hopefully in the real near future, take over the management of this, and that will be the board that will carry this forward,” he said.

Wilson’s personal goal is to have the theater open by late summer or early fall of 2015.

“Everybody says, ‘have you got two heads?’ What’s wrong with you?’ I know it’s aggressive, but I’m the kind of guy that sets an aggressive goal. … Is that possible? I don’t know.”

Mayor Jeffrey Cuthbertson said the Hills Theatre is “an exciting prospect” for the city and for the broader community.

“You’re taking a private fundraising approach to this — that is, I think, a spot-on tactic,” he said to Wilson during the meeting. “That said, I think when you get serious commitments, I’d be willing to bring before my colleges discussion of some level of assistance — maybe that involves engineering or a professional service that can help the cause. I don’t think that the city is in a position to write a big check, but I do think this is something that we need to consider as a group to find a way to help with, in a way that may help it get across the finish line. I can’t commit this body, but I’m willing to at least advance a discussion on the point.”