Drive-In Theatres / Northern Kentucky

The Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio)

June 9, 2011 Thursday

Idea floated for drive-in theater in Erlanger;

ERLANGER – If an Erlanger movie lover has his way, the shuttered Showcase Cinemas property here could become the Friendship City Drive-in.

By Cindy Schroeder

Darrin Heber is the first to acknowledge that his idea "is in the extreme preliminary phases." But the middle-aged U.S. Postal Service driver says a dream has to start somewhere.

Last month, Heber approached Erlanger’s building and zoning administrator to determine the city’s interest in his proposal.

Heber learned that drive-in movie theaters are currently not allowed under Erlanger’s zoning. However, council could add a text amendment to Erlanger’s zoning code to allow a drive-in movie theater to locate at the former Showcase Cinemas’ site, if city officials chose to do so.

At council committee meetings on June 21, Erlanger city officials will hear a presentation on the proposed drive-in and discuss whether there’s interest in having the full council consider a text amendment to Erlanger’s zoning code to allow drive-in movie theaters in the Kenton County suburb that’s known as "the Friendship City."

The 140-acre site off I-75 near I-275 has been vacant since National Amusements Inc. closed Showcase Cinemas in April 2008 before opening a new Showcase Cinema de Lux by the Florence Mall, which is now a Rave Motion Pictures Florence 14.

The Showcase Cinemas site in Erlanger is owned by National Amusements Inc. Erlanger’s eight-year-old master plan for the site calls for a mix of business, residential, entertainment and recreation at the high visibility site.

Erlanger Mayor Tom Rouse thinks the site would be perfect for a corporate campus, and/or medical campus with its proximity to major expressways and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. But he says he’s willing to listen to Heber’s proposal if the council committees decide to bring it before the full council.

"Just call me an old guy with great memories," Heber said. "I want to model my Friendship City Drive-In after the drive-ins from the ’60s and ’70s. I want the speakers on the cars. I want the neon on (the entrance sign), at the concession stand and on the fencing all around. And I want the teeter totters, the see saw and the jungle gym underneath the movie screen."

Above all, Heber says a key goal in his business plan is to create a project that’s "family friendly and affordable" with a per car – not per person – price, and "reasonably priced" concession fare, such as $1 hot dogs.

"I want to target 16- to 26-year-olds and moms and dads with small kids," Heber said.

In the off-season, Heber says he could host events such as car shows at the drive-in and he would have a snack bar that could double as a reception hall in the winter for birthday parties or receptions.

Growing up in Rising Sun, Ind. in the 1970s, Heber has fond memories of watching double features at the Starlite Drive-In in nearby Aurora, Ind.

So when the 46-year-old Erlanger resident recently read about a nationwide resurgence in drive-in movie theaters, he was inspired to open his own drive-in. Heber says he’s had discussions with a friend who operates a Somerset, Ky. drive-in, and is modeling his business plan after that development," only bigger because we’re a bigger metropolitan area."

Heber says he’s in the process of putting together financing, but has not yet approached National Amusements Inc., which owns the property.

"Over the years, we’ve had inquiries about retail development and hotels, but the real estate market has been so soft for the last few years that there just really hasn’t been much interest in (the former Showcase Cinemas) property or any of the other vacant properties that we own," said Steve Horton, vice president of operations for National Amusements.

According to "The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky," drive-in movie theaters operated in Northern Kentucky from the mid-20th century until 1992.

At one time, Northern Kentucky had drive-ins from Dayton in Campbell County to Florence in Boone County. However, rising land prices and competition from newer multi-screen cinemas in Florence and Erlanger in the 1980s claimed much of the drive-ins’ clientele.

The Florence Drive-In Theater closed in 1988 and was replaced by condominiums and retail businesses. The screen of the Dixie Gardens Drive-In Theater in Fort Wright – targeted as a public nuisance in 1970 because of the racy movies that could be seen from I-75 – was destroyed by a fire in 1990, and the Pike 27 Auto-Theater closed in 1992.

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