Rebirth sought for Casablanca, Bethel Station
In the year since the Casablanca Cinema closed, realtor Tony Donovan has had serious interest from five clients in buying and operating the theater.
But, he said last week, “in every case it came down to the projected revenue didn’t justify it.”
There are two primary reasons: the economy and the cost of converting the movie projection system to the modern digital format at a cost of $280,000, he said.
So Donovan, who also happens to be the founder and president of the Maine Rail Transit Coalition - an organization seeking to bring passenger rail service back to the region - is thinking on a larger scale.
The four-screen cinema, built in 1994 for about $1.5 million as part of the Bethel Station project, which is owned by a multiple-member development group. The theater closed last September.
It later went on the market with Donovan’s agency, Fishman Realty of Portland. The initial asking price was $725,000. More recently the price has dropped to $625,000.
Donovan said he wishes he could move the building somewhere else, because it would likely sell well in a prime location.
“We’re basically giving away a gorgeous building,” he said, citing the cupola design and other features.
The carpeting was recently replaced and other upgrades made, he said.
The building also houses a daycare/preschool.
The Fishman website currently advertises the building as a 14,000-square-foot professional office building that can be bought separately or as part of the larger Bethel Station five-lot commercial subdivision for a package price of $1,750,000.
Donovan said he had also talked to nonprofit groups about the potential for use as a site for film festivals or other similar events, but there are already facilities available at Gould Academy.
He also said there has been little interest in the building as office or retail space, and speculated that the Bethel economy is the reason.
At the same time the Casablanca was constructed, a train station with a 400-foot platform was also built next door, in anticipation of the return of passenger rail service. Although passenger trains ran briefly, the service didn’t last.
Donovan hopes for another chance.
“I do rail,” he said. “My niche is the site location of development at rail stations. If train service is not running, I try to get it running.”
He’s been part of an effort to restore passenger rail service between Portland and Montreal, Quebec.
There is also interest in the effort in Bethel.
Just recently, said Donovan, he met with “Montreal interests” about restoring service, “and I asked them to stop in Bethel.” Other than Portland, he said, “I believe it’s the only 400-foot platform between Montreal and Boston.”
He wants to highlight Bethel Station for redevelopment, he said, “on the concept of passenger rail service maybe arriving sooner than you think.’
But, said Donovan, if Bethel wants train service to stop here, “you better say so.”
(Note: A press conference titled "Passenger Rail Service is coming to Western Maine" is scheduled in South Paris Sept. 4, presented by representatives of rail initiatives. Also, according to published reports, a presentation recently took place before the Berlin, N.H., City Council regarding several privately-funded rail iniatives for service along the Portland-Montreal line.)
Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said the Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative organization has recently had very preliminary discussion on possibilities for the future of Bethel Station, and Donovan was included.
As for the Casablanca itself, she said she did not know of any area economic development agencies actively promoting the building.
Some businesses and movie-goers have had to adjust for the loss of the movie theater.
At Sunday River Ski Resort, spokesperson Darcy Morse said the concierge at the Summit Hotel said that “guests definitely ask about a local movie theater," particularly during the winter. "When we mention Flagship (in Oxford) as an option, most guests see that as too far to travel and as a result, [the concierge] has added more in-house movie nights at the hotel and and has increased the number of DVDs and Blue Rays on hand to lend to guests.”
Crossroads Diner owner Frank DelDuca has also seen an effect from the closing. People formerly traveled to Bethel from New Hampshire and from the Rumford area to eat at his restaurant and then went to a movie. With half of that entertainment package gone, so are many of those diners, he said.
Local residents, including Marjorie Osgood of Newry, also feel the loss.
“I do miss it, and probably don’t go to the movies as often because of the drive,” she said. “We do go down to the Oxford Flagship Cinema, when we do go, and when we do we usually grab something to eat prior to the movie, either at Market Square or Pizza Hut."
At the cinema, she said, ”There are more theaters, so more of a variety and the ticket price is less, but concessions are more so it all evens out. I sure do wish we still had a theater here in town though, because I really don’t enjoy the long ride home after."