By Tony Dobrowolski

Berkshire Eagle Staff



he city’s downtown has played a major role in Steven Valenti’s life.

From spending time on North Street as a teenager in the late 1960s to owning a menswear store on Pittsfield’s central thoroughfare for the past 27 years, Valenti has seen the once-bustling commercial hub of Berkshire County’s largest community lose its relevance, then begin the long road back to respectability.

North Street still isn’t what it once was. But Valenti believes the $23 million Beacon Cinema in the historic Kinnell-Kresge building is the project that can return some of the swagger to downtown Pittsfield.

"I think it can bring a majority of that back," Valenti said. "To me, it really puts us in the game."

The six-screen cinema center -- which will open Thursday night for a midnight movie, followed by the ribbon-cutting at 11 a.m. Friday -- took 10 years from conception to completion, a span that included a one-year delay in construction that caused the price tag to skyrocket by nearly $11 million.

But business owners and city officials believe it was worth the wait: They know the complex will create jobs, and they expect it to increase foot traffic downtown by approximately 200,000 people a year. They also expect it to spur additional economic development.

"I think the biggest impact the theater will have is just the volume of people that it will bring downtown 24-7, and the diversity of people that it will bring downtown," said Deanna L. Ruffer, director of Pittsfield’s Community Development Department. "At some time in their life, everybody is going to go to a movie."

The Beacon, the city’s first movie complex since the 10-screen Pittsfield Cinema Center on West Housatonic Street closed abruptly in March 2001, has been seen as a major piece of downtown development, along with the Colonial Theatre in 2006 and the Barrington Stage Company in 2007. But Ruffer said the Beacon isn’t the final piece of the puzzle.

"While at the moment this is a major step forward because of the number of people that it brings downtown, I’m hesitant to say that it’s the final thing or the only thing to do," she said. "We’ll continue to work with our downtown partners in the business community to look at ways to further strengthen downtown."

The six cinemas, which all have stadium seating, can seat a total of 850 patrons.

Richard Stanley, the Beacon’s managing partner, said he expects annual box-office sales of $1.5 million, concession sales of $437,000, and $101,000 in screen advertising.

The Community Development Department estimates the Beacon Cinema will create 35 jobs among the operation of the movie theaters and the adjacent restaurants, retail businesses and offices that will occupy the 91-year-old Kinnell-Kresge building.

The Marketplace of Sheffield plans to open a restaurant in a ground-floor space next to the Beacon’s main entrance on North Street by the end of the year. Stanley also is seekingsix tenants to fill 400 to 1,500 feet of retail space on the McKay Street level. Negotiations with at least one unidentified restaurant are under way.

According to a study the Community Development Department prepared for the City Council in May 2008, the cinema complex is expected to draw 200,000 to 250,000 people downtown each year -- with a direct economic impact of $2 million -- and bring an additional $1.7 million in revenue to downtown restaurants and businesses.

According to a study the Community Development Department prepared for the City Council in May 2008, the cinema complex is expected to draw 200,000 to 250,000 people downtown each year -- with a direct economic impact of $2 million -- and bring an additional $1.7 million in revenue to downtown restaurants and businesses.

Since then, Ruffer said the attendance figures have been revised to 180,000 to 210,000 people a year.

"That changes the complexion of downtown all by itself," Ruffer said, referring to the number of visitors.

Several of those are expected "to eat downtown, drink, or do a bit of shopping on their way to and from a movie," she said.

Stanley was the source for all statistics except the $1.7 million revenue figure, which was provided by Downtown Inc.

According to Ruffer, the numbers were analyzed by the five local financial institutions that provided $4.6 million in bank notes toward the project’s total cost, and by the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation, which provided $6.5 million in tax credits.

The cinema center’s presence already has led to an increase in downtown restaurants.

In addition to The Marketplace Cafe, two other eateries -- a Japanese restaurant and a gelato ice cream and espresso shop -- are planned for the former Union Federal Savings Bank on the other side of North Street. Flavours of Malaysia, with its entrance on McKay Street -- adjacent to the rear of the cinema complex -- moved from Lenox to Pittsfield this past summer.

Space for another eatery next to the Kinnell-Kresge building opened in September when Bobby Hudpucker’s restaurant went out of business. There has been some interest in the former Hudpucker’s space, according to Lenox attorney Philip Heller, who represents building owner Peter Dousmanis of Great Barrington, but no serious offers have been made.

Harry Yu, who owns Shiro Restaurant in Great Barrington, plans to open his eatery in the Union Federal Savings Bank next month. Yu said he wouldn’t have been interested in establishing a second Shiro’s in Pittsfield without the cinema center.

"Honestly, probably not," he said. "It’s because [North Street] didn’t have an icon [anchor]."

Patrick’s Pub on Park Square opened on Sundays last year to prepare for the opening of the cinema center, according to David Powell, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother, Mika.

The pub currently is closed for lunch between Monday and Thursday, but David Powell said the brothers will re-evaluate that situation after the construction in Park Square ends next year.

"When something’s going on at the Colonial Theater, Barrington Stage or the Crowne Plaza, we’re pretty slamming," Powell said, referring to business at the restaurant.

Eateries a little farther from the Beacon -- but still on North Street -- also expect a financial boost from the cinema’s presence.

"I don’t think that you have to be right on top of it," said Mark Papas, owner of The Lantern Restaurant on the corner of North and Linden streets. "I’m not right on top of the Colonial [on South Street], but I’ve benefited from the shows there.

"For a long time I thought there was a hole in the soul of downtown," added Papas, whose family has owned The Lantern for 84 years. "If you go back five or 10 years ago, we had nothing. ... It’s turned around quite a bit."

Papas doesn’t see the cinema center as a fad.

"I think this has got legs," he said. "There’s the argument that with technology, people don’t leave their homes anymore, or they watch a movie on their iPods. But people still want to go out of their houses and have a social experience. They need a venue to do that, and this fills that need."

Downtown retail businesses also should see a bump in business, although they won’t feel the effects as directly as restaurants will, according to Berkshire Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Michael Supranowicz.

"A couple could come down to see a movie on Friday night, see Chapters Bookstore, and not realize that a bookstore was there," he said. "Then they come back on Saturday and bring their kids to the bookstore."

Chapter’s, which opened in July 2008, is located on the other side of North Street from the cinema center. Co-owner Kelly Wright said she already has extended her closing time from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays. After Thanksgiving, Chapters will be open until 8 p.m., seven days a week.

While the cinema center is expected to be profitable, the movie business isn’t always a financial slam dunk. In North Adams, an eight-screen movieplex in the downtown Steeple City Plaza closed last month when its parent company, Cinema North of Rutland, Vt., ran into financial trouble.

Stanley, however, has a successful track record in the cinema business. The Community Development Department’s study said the Triplex in Great Barrington, which Stanley and his staff manage, routinely grosses 50 percent more than the industry standard for similar-sized theaters.

Mayor James M. Ruberto said he hasn’t put the projections through an economic formula, but believes the Beacon’s impact on downtown Pittsfield will be "substantial."

"There will be more people on the street, and this is the largest venue that will be open for residents and visitors," he said.

Ruffer said city officials aren’t worried that what took place in North Adams will repeat itself in the county’s largest community.

"Absolutely not, in my opinion," Ruffer said. "Richard is a highly successful theater operator in a comparable marketplace. The rigorous economic analysis combined with [his] experience in the marketplace gives me a great deal of confidence."

"Every project has numerous marketing studies that are done by various parties," Ruffer said. "In each case they looked at the surrounding competition and the fit of the cinema. And they consistently came back and said the mix being proposed is right for this marketplace."

Valenti, meanwhile, said he’s pleased with the new businesses that have opened on North Street.

"I never felt like I was the Lone Ranger," he said. "But now I’m excited that we’ve got company."

To reach Tony Dobrowolski:

(413) 496-6224