Since the Greenbelt Theatre opened in 1938, it has been an anchor of the historic Roosevelt Shopping Center, serving as a community center and place for gathering.
Barbara Simon, a lifelong Greenbelt resident, remembers walking to the theater to see Disney movies as a child in the 1950s.
“My favorite was ‘Cinderella,’ ” Simon said. “I saw it seven times.”
The theater, which now shows more art films than children’s movies, is in need of about $1.5 million in renovations, but funding is short for the property’s owner — the city.
In 2002, George Christacos, who owned the property, announced plans to turn the one-screen theater into a discount retailer or to break it up into smaller spaces for retail, Mayor Judith Davis said. The city stepped in and purchased the space to maintain the history of the theater and the value of the Roosevelt Center.
The city has about $800,000 in grants and funds set aside for the project, which has been tabled since 2004 because of funding woes and clashes in regard to the vision for the theater. In order to fund the project, the city will have to break it into phases.
But some of the funding, including $80,000 in grants from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, is set to expire at the end of the year, and Davis said the council needs to move forward to get the renovations under way before it does.
Potential renovations include upgrades to electrical, plumbing, and heating and cooling systems, bathroom renovations and a new digital projector.
Davis said the city council has to decide whether to spend money on the cosmetic elements — such as the concession stand, ticket booth and seats — or what City Manager Michael McLaughlin calls “invisible” upgrades, such as plumbing and electrical upgrades and replacement of the heating and cooling system.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Davis said. “Half the citizenry would like us to deal with the cosmetic issues . . . and half the citizenry would like us to deal with the invisible upgrades.”
A decision is likely to come before the council in December, after bids are solicited from contractors. The council hopes to get an extension on the grant expiration date before then.
Many advocates, including Simon, say a digital projector is a must as the film industry changes.
Paul Sanchez, owner of P&G Theatres, which manages the theater, said some film studios are moving to distribute their movies only in a digital format. Sanchez predicts that within two years, the theater would not have access to enough films to stay afloat.
“Theater owners have got to convert [to digital] or go out of business,” Sanchez said.
A digital projector system could cost as much as $70,000, McLaughlin said.
Renovations could start as early as January and would shutter the theater for as long as six months. The theater gets about 30,000 visitors per year, Sanchez said. At $8.50 per ticket, that could mean up to $255,000 in revenue, all of which goes to P&G to run the theater.
The only revenue the city sees from the theater, McLaughlin said, is the 10 percent admissions and amusement tax levied by the city.
McLaughlin added that the city is not discussing increased attendance as a goal of the renovations.
The Greenbelt Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group founded last year to initiate and support development projects in the city, made the theater its first priority, said Simon, the organization’s president. The group plans to support the city’s work through fundraising efforts after a solid plan is made to move the project forward, Simon said.
“From our viewpoint, making Greenbelt Movie Theatre the best historic art movie theater it can be is a key piece in revitalizing Roosevelt Center,” Simon said.
The Roosevelt Center was built in the 1930s to be the center of the city, which was planned and built by the federal government during the Great Depression to create jobs and affordable housing for workers. The shopping center houses a cooperative grocery, a cooperative credit union, a convenience store and restaurants and has some vacant spaces.
“I live right across the street, and I love the idea that I can walk over anytime to get something or see a movie,” said Ed James, a Greenbelt resident who supports the theater renovation. “Anything that impacts the Roosevelt Center declining is a concern. I’m afraid if [the theater] goes empty, it will stay empty. We either have to maintain it now or lose it as a theater.”