Citizens calling for movie theater

With tourism becoming a critical piece of the economic picture, it’s becoming even more important to provide entertainment for guests driving into Fort Payne. However, the city doesn’t even have a movie theater, a skating rink or a bowling alley.

Fort Payne Mayor Brian Baine says citizens constantly complain to him about the lack of entertainment venues outside of their homes, particularly the lack of a movie theater.

Fort Payne Cinemas closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 shut downs. Eventually, the owners replaced movie titles on the marquee with a promise to re-open. Yet the space is essentially gutted with the snack bar and walls between theatres gone. While there is still a roof overhead, the insides are open air and essentially a concrete slab with removed seats stacked high. With the Henagar Drive-In under renovation, to watch a new blockbuster movie, Fort Payne residents are forced to make a 24-mile trip to Scottsboro, 29 miles to Rome or 30 miles to Albertville.

Fort Payne Cinemas owner Freddy Johnson did not return calls, but his wife Beckie explained, “We started trying to do some re-modeling and he said to just put on the sign that we will re-open. I did that and then we’ve had some issues getting things we need. It’s just sort of snowballed and other things have taken priority a few times so we are just struggling along.”

Baine said he’s tried to move the process along, but Fort Payne Cinemas was under renovation for years, even before the pandemic grinded everything to a halt. Even before the pandemic, the struggling movie industry faced stagnating attendance, high fixed costs and competition from more affordable streaming and video-on-demand (VOD) options in the marketplace. Still, people love to experience movies in a shared setting, even if they’ve grown accustomed to hitting the pause button to take a bathroom break.

“The survey of citizen feedback conducted by [Goodwyn Mills Cawood] reveals [Johnson] is sitting on a gold mine if he ever reopens,” he said. “The survey screams that people here want a movie theatre.”

Baine said the new Lucas Cinemas in Albertville is “phenomenal” and he would love to see something like that with heated recliners and a 60-foot screen. The mayor said he’s also spoken with potential competitors who’ve searched for a building where they can open a movie theatre, skating rink or bowling alley.

Jerry and Sherry Fortner closed the Fort Payne skating rink off Airport Road, which sold to become a hosiery mill about five years ago. Fort Payne’s bowling alley on Gault and 23rd Street was also converted into industrial storage after being occupied by a floral business and a church at one point.

In neighboring Rainsville, however, there’s skating at the PlayZone Fun Center and bowling at Mountain Lanes.

It’s inaccurate to say there’s “nothing” to do in Fort Payne with big events like the June Jam, Boom Days, Third Saturday Sunset Cruise-In, Courtyard Concert Series and both state and federal parks in our backyard.

Youth sports are huge here, as well. There’s a skate park at the Sports Complex, which is being renovated to add new and improved ballfields, and last year the city reacted to demand and added a basketball goal beside the recreation center.

But not everyone enjoys hiking, and not all kids participate in sports. Teenagers say there isn’t much to occupy their time on weekends except driving from one end of town to the other and killing time inside of Walmart. Young adults have few options for date night except hanging out in a bar.

The challenge for leaders like Baine is wanting to see more entertainment come in, but lacking the tax dollars to make it happen when there are so many other urgent needs. The city sets the conditions to incentive private investments.

But there are many risks involved for entrepreneurs, including bad actors limiting interest in a family attraction, liability risks associated with accidents, injuries or property damage, employee errors and damage to physical assets due to natural disasters. There’s no guarantee if someone builds something that consumers will come.

Baine said he and Council woman Lynn Brewer visited Trussville, where their mayor gave them a tour of how they formed an entertainment district and turned a dilapidated section of town into an amphitheater and picnic area. Baine has a vision for the city-owned former GH Metal Building to be transformed for entertainment purposes such as indoor golf, laser tag, etc.

“It takes bringing in investors who are interested in doing something. We’ve built a list of the things we’d like to see, X, Y and Z. The city can offer incentives to help make it happen,” he said.

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