The Chelsea Theater’s future is in question. Is the ArtsCenter the answer?

Owner Bruce Stone is putting The Chelsea Theater up for sale at the end of the year.
Owner Bruce Stone is putting The Chelsea Theater up for sale at the end of the year. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Last week I caught the Herald-Sun article announcing that Chapel Hill’s Chelsea Theater may be near the end of its run. Having seen many films there and having given my spouse Chelsea gift certificates for many birthdays, this is a gut punch and a sad reckoning for arthouse and related films in Chapel Hill / Carrboro.

The article states:

“Now in the last year of our current five-year lease, with only a handful of months to go, we must make some serious choices about the future of the Chelsea Theater,” the release said. “Given the advancing years of the current owner it might be difficult committing to another five year lease. And yet there may be some interest in continuing the legacy of the Chelsea.”

The theater is asking interested parties to reach out to the theater via email.

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Cutting to the chase, unless there is some deep-pocketed film aficionado interested in taking over the labor of love that has been Bruce Stone’s stewardship of the Chelsea (and previously the Varsity), then there is one obvious organization to ask if they are interested in stepping into the breach: The ArtsCenter.

It wouldn’t be the first time an arthouse theater has gone the non-profit route to stay in business. The Coolidge Corner theater in Brookline, MA made the move in 1989. A/perture Cinema in Winston-Salem did, too, in the past seven years.

What’s different from both of these other situations is that these locations were stand-alone operations without other infrastructure that they needed to develop to execute their plans. The ArtsCenter already has a box office, online ticket sales, a wine/beer permit, and people who know about running a theater, not to mention a non-profit board in place. Clearly there’s a space question to be managed, but 300 East Main has a few spaces that aren’t fully leased and maybe there’s a temporary opportunity that could be figured out while larger programming questions about the ArtsCenter’s footprint downtown could be managed.

So what’s in this idea for various parties?

For the ArtsCenter, it presents an opportunity to open up a new fundraising and stakeholder channel around arthouse films like the two theaters above, in addition to embracing a new level of film engagement.

For Carrboro, it’s a potential downtown economic development opportunity that fits with the town’s brand that is authentic, artistic, and independent.

For film fans, it’s a chance to put their money where their mouth is and support the Chelsea as the community institution it is. Our household currently buys tickets to ArtsCenter events a la carte. I’m certain that if the ArtsCenter made this move, we’d become members, and I bet others would, too.

What do you think?

Patrick McDonough is an urban planner in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. This article originally appeared on his blog City Beautiful 21: Urban Planning for the 21st Century and is reprinted with permission.