published Saturday, August 20th, 2011

Rebirth in South Pittsburg

For decades, one of the best ways to monitor the vibrancy of a community's downtown was to keep tabs on the movie theater or theaters in the heart of the city. If they were thriving, things were fine. If they were not, the business district likely was in trouble. Given that, it was hardly a surprise that the growth of suburbia that forced closure of many iconic movie houses in the mid-20th century also helped hasten the demise of the central city as the economic engine of many communities.

The corollary to that, of course, is that the return of movie theaters to a downtown should be a sign of renewed economic vigor in small and large communities. There's powerful evidence of that fact here.

Chattanooga's downtown renaissance was under way when Carmike announced that it would open the multiscreened Bijou on Broad Street. Even so, the idea of a downtown theater was so novel at the time that many people and competitors were convinced that the chain's executives were taking an enormous risk in operating a facility in the central city. Not so. The Bijou proved to be a sound decision -- for Carmike and for Chattanooga.

Indeed, the Bijou was so popular that it ultimately spawned the Majestic, a stand-alone movie house with 12 screens and, by all accounts, a strong customer base. The rebirth of downtown movie houses is not limited to cities with large populations and a heavy influx of visitors. The return of a central-city theater can provide impetus for growth and hope in smaller towns, too. The Princess Theater in South Pittsburg, Tenn., is the latest example.

The Princess, closed in the 1980s and on the verge of structural collapse in the 1990s, opened its doors again at an open house last weekend. The $1 million-plus renovation, paid for with private funds and a $750,000 loan from South Pittsburg, is widely, wisely and correctly viewed as a sound investment and positive asset for the community.

"Our goal," South Pittsburg Mayor Mike Killian said, "is to keep downtown thriving. ... With this facility, we've taken a big step forward keeping downtown alive."

That worthy goal certainly seems achievable.

Killian said several organizations already have approached the city about using the refurbished facility. There are plans, too, to show newly released movies there soon. Such interest is a welcome indication -- even proof -- that renovating the theater was the right thing to do.

Activity at the Princess -- whether it is a communitywide event or movie showing -- will bring people to downtown and contribute to the vitality of South Pittsburg's commercial district.

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