Jeff Farrell: New movie theater would be welcome addition

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 11:08 PM

Few stories that I’ve written lately have gotten the enthusiastic response that we saw for the announcement of a possible new movie theater at Governor’s Crossing.

It does seem like Sevier County has a paucity of movie theaters compared to the number of people here most weekends. The Forge Cinema, the only option currently, is a nice, new theater but it has just five screens and that means the viewing options are limited for people who don’t want to drive to Knoxville to catch a movie.

If Charlotte, N.C.-based Independent Theater Booking Service builds its planned new theater, it will give residents and tourists a chance to enjoy films without the long drive.

I say “if” because in part I’ve been down this road before.

In my first few years at The Mountain Press, we saw so many promises of new theaters that I said I wouldn’t write a story saying one was on the way until I was eating popcorn there on opening night. The Forge broke that string when it opened in 2010, but the thought stayed in the back of my mind when I heard the theater news this week.

But there are reasons for optimism this time around — unlike many of the other announcements, this isn’t part of a larger development. A lot of those earlier theaters were part of a larger plan, like Dumplin Creek and Bridgemont in Sevierville. When the big plans fell through, so did the theaters.

In this case, the developer isn't announcing any bigger plan. The firm is buying an undeveloped swath of land near the Parkway specifically to build a movie theater. The theater's existence isn't dependent on getting a big box store as an anchor, or convincing city leaders to build a new road, as with the other, derailed, plans.

The chain in this case is a small, family-owned operation, but it's one that's been expanding in the Southeast. It recently opened new theaters in Hilton Head and Charleston, S.C., which means the operators know something about operating in tourist destinations.

It’s a promising moment for movie fans, and for businesses in Governor’s Crossing. It would almost certainly increase traffic to Rainforest Adventures, which sits right beside the planned location, as well as the other restaurants and shops

As a reporter who’s written about a lot of planned developments — including the Island through its earlier incarnations, Walden’s Landing and the ill-fated Dumplin Creek and Bridgemont projects — my observation is that specialized projects seem to work better than the sprawling commercial/entertainment developments that were promised so often the last few years.

Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World out at the interstate is a booming success for the chain, but even with the traffic it draws, several of the other storefronts there have been empty for years.

Bridgemont apparently lost traction with retailers during the recession, even with the Sevierville Convention Center across the street and Wilderness Resorts at one corner. Dumplin Creek’s investors tried to put the blame for that projects’s failure on the city for not building a road to serve it. But it’s hard to believe a project with that much investment hadn’t planned its own way to build the road.

Walden’s Landing was finished, but has seen considerable turnover since it opened. The property was sold in foreclosure last year, although that was not expected to affect existing tenants.

I hope to see the Island and Walden’s Landing thrive, and I hope to see Dumplin Creek and Bridgemont resurrected. I know I’m speaking for quite a few people when I say that I want to see some kind of development after all of the clearing and excavation that was already completed for Dumplin Creek, only to leave the bared ridge standing at our only interstate interchange.

But in the meantime, I hope some of the chains that looked at Sevier County as part of those projects — popular businesses like House of Blues, Cheesecake Factory and many others — see there’s still an opportunity here to serve local folks and a popular tourist destination.

The success of Bass Pro and other relative newcomers like Joe’s Crab Shack show they don’t have to be part of a grand development to make money here.