A Unique Theater

April 16, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — When Jack Loeks opened his mind and his wallet to create a unique theater experience for just under $26 million, area moviegoers could only stare in amazement.

As scouting began for the right spot to locate the new Celebration! Cinema — a 17-screen first-run theater and the area's only IMAX screen in a commercial theater — Loeks and his team focused on the northeast side.

"There was very little development and there was very little compulsion to go that way with a movie theater," said Loeks, CEO of Celebration! Cinema and Jack Loeks Theaters. But, viewing the northeast side of the city as the "corridor of the future," Loeks and his team decided it was the ideal spot for the first-run theater.

"In the last few years there has been very rapid development, and building permits were at an all-time high. Forest Hills was going to a third high school; growth at Rockford was phenomenal. So that caused us to examine the area, and just as we did so, Meijer made the move to Knapp and the East Beltline," he added.

Suspecting the area might be the only space remaining for significant commercial development, Loeks acquired the 40 acres northwest of Knapp and the East Beltline and began planning, coordinating with the city's desire for mixed-use development.

"We took into consideration what the city was looking for and in the theater we wanted to build, and we came up with what we now call Celebration Village," Loeks said.

"The rule of thumb that we normally work with is if there are 10,000 people for each screen, then we can build the theater. Demographic measuring indicated that about 150,000 people or so would find this the most convenient location, so that way we could easily build a 15-screen theater."

Celebration Village is a mixed-use development with the theater as the major anchor, and includes retail space, banquet facilities and commercial offices. It has been constructed, and continues to be constructed, using a plan developed with the "new urbanism" concept.

New urbanism, by definition, looks to create small town shopping streets, including all of the preceding, with a look of separate shops. "Because of the definition of the new urbanism concept, the architecture of the theater had to be redesigned into creating one entrance in the front with teaser parking, and then creating a separate entrance in the back, where the majority of the parking is located," Loeks explained.

Loeks wanted to create something different in the theater experience and in the look of the theater — something out of the big box development. He decided to draw on the look of historic movie palaces.

"We wanted to make a statement for the theater but we still wanted it to fit into the village," Loeks said. When we started to develop the entrance, we discovered that what we had started with was a sort of beacon. Then on the left side of the beacon, the roof line of the second floor looks like waves and we realized we had kind of a Michigan theme."

Directly under the "waves" is a new banquet room, which is being called the Wave Room, with table seating for about 225 people. "This will be a nice addition to the community for anyone who wants to do a wedding reception or a business meeting or a community organization banquet," Loeks noted.

In addition to the Wave Room, there are two other large rooms on the second floor above the lobby of the theater, allowing three large groups to gather at once. "And I wish I could say that I meant to do this in my planning, but in building the lobby so large, with entrances on both ends, we discovered we had a whole half lobby that we could cut off for a large, grand party. It could actually be sectioned off for 400 to 500 people by pipe and draping, and then close off the front entrance to the public," Loeks said.

Besides taking on the banquet business, Loeks is also wearing the hat of landlord. In the transaction, Loeks optioned the entire 40-acre parcel and then sold off what was left after the theater and some retail space. "We are going to become landlords to some retail operations and restaurants, with the theater being the major anchor," he said.

Meanwhile, as Loeks continued to take on numerous "firsts," he added one more: opening the area's only IMAX theater, and one of the first IMAX screens in a relatively small market.

"For years and years we realized that there were IMAX screens built mainly in large cultural institutions, like the Museum of Science and Industry, or the Smithsonian, in New York or the San Diego Zoo.  And they were successful, and although they played a product different than the picture we play, we decided to go for it," Loeks said.

At first Loeks began to worry that the IMAX wouldn't draw enough people to bring in enough money to pay for the theater. "We had to realize that we were pushing the edge of the envelope doing it this way, but then as time passed we started to notice that there were a few other large multiplex theaters in California that were adding an IMAX screen to their theaters," he added.

And while IMAX is an entirely different world, charging higher ticket prices and offering viewers an "experience," as Loeks called it, he also concluded that it was a wise choice that has been well received in the community so far.

"We think we are changing the face of the map of the northeast side of Grand Rapids —and we are happy to do it," Loeks said. "There are a lot of people that are living out in that area and are having to drive so far to go to the theater, and now they have the best one in the state, or so we think, right in their neighborhood."

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