Thomas Duda
Last Friday's St. Louis Business Journal reports that movies will soon return to downtown St. Louis more than eight years after Union Station 10 Cinema shut down in 2003. A $3 million movie theater — to open sometime "next year" — will grace the ground level of the parking garage formerly known as St. Louis Centre. The article states: "The new theater will have three screens, and moviegoers will be able to order gourmet food prepared by local chefs, beer and wine from touch pads at each seat." It will also be taxpayer-funded, and therein lies the problem.

The vacancy rate for commercial space in downtown St. Louis is higher than 22 percent, yet the state of Missouri continues to fund the construction of new commercial buildings within walking distance of each other. In this particular case, the proposed use of the building (pictured below) as a movie theater raises its own questions. Why will this theater succeed where two others failed? And why is the government stepping in to pick up part of the tab for people to watch movies and eat popcorn? Where's the sense in that?

The Parking Garage Formerly Known as St. Louis Centre, View to Northwest
The Parking Garage Formerly Known as St. Louis Centre, View to Northwest

Located at Sixth and Washington, the St. Louis Centre redevelopment combines public funding from a variety of sources, including federal New Markets Tax CreditsRecovery Zone Facility Bonds, and equity from the Missouri Development Finance Board. In total, the project to convert the former shopping mall into a parking garage with a ground floor movie theater will cost more than $30 million.

Stadium Cinema Grand Opening, 1967-68 Downtown St. Louis, Inc. Annual Report
Stadium Cinema Grand Opening, 1967, 1967-68 Downtown St. Louis, Inc. Annual Report

Undoubtedly, some will herald the opening of a new downtown movie theater as a sign of great progress and excitement to come. For downtown observers, however, the prospect of yet another publicly subsidized movie theater recalls St. Louisan Yogi Berra's saying, "It's like déjà vu all over again." Consider this: Downtown St. Louis, Inc., celebrated the first theater to open on the ground level of a parking garage in 1967. The Stadium Cine at Chestnut and Broadway operated until May 1984, when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in a front-page article: "The last of the first-run movie houses in the city, the Stadium 1 and 2 Cine downtown, will close indefinitely after Sunday's movies." Today, the space is fully leased to other retail tenants.

Union Station 10 Movie Theater, View to Southwest
Union Station 10 Movie Theater, View to Southwest

The same is not true of the next movie theater to open downtown after the Stadium Cine's closure: The Union Station 10 Cinema — which opened in 1988, closed briefly between 1996 and 1998, and ceased operating in 2003 — stands vacant and available for use today. A leasing guide for the facility describes "The Theater at Union Station" as containing a "[l]arge glass vestibule, open lobby area and expansive ceilings" in addition to its "10 existing theaters, concession area and seating area." How its vestibule differs from the shiny state-funded parking garage on Washington Avenue is anyone's guess.

A July 10, 1988, column by St. Louis Post-Dispatch film critic Joe Pollack, "First-Run Movies Come Back To City," offered a description of Union Station 10: "In the pattern of today's movie houses, the new theater will have a luxurious look and, more important, big concession areas. It will house a delicatessen, an ice cream parlor, and a bar." From available information sources, the only difference between it and the new, new downtown theater on Washington Avenue is that Union Station 10 had seven more screens but no touch pads for placing beer orders. Apparently, that's the reason for taxpayers to subsidize another new facility.

We've seen this movie before — not once, but twice. I did not expect Missouri to fund a third. For taxpayers, this deal deserves two thumbs down.

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