Shawnee business leaders strive to buy Aztec Theatre
Potential new owners seeking financial assistance from city
A few Shawnee businessmen hope to buy the historic downtown Aztec Theatre, which has sat vacant for 43 years, and bring it back to life by next spring.
But there’s one catch: they can’t do it alone.
The men, under the name Aztec Group LLC, approached the Shawnee City Council last week, requesting the city serve as a partner in the project by investing half a million dollars for renovation costs.
The group, consisting of Shawnee businessmen Jeffrey and Christopher Calkins and Bruce Young, has agreed to purchase the building for $250,000 from current owner Wade Williams.
The men will invest $100,000 of their own money, with a commercial loan funding the remaining amount.
The potential new owners of the theatre are no strangers to the downtown Shawnee business scene.
Jeffrey and Christopher Calkins have both operated Calkins Electric Supply Company, they are members of the Shawnee Chamber of Commerce, they are active members of the Shawnee Downtown Business Association and their family has been a part of the downtown Shawnee business area for more than six decades.
Young has operated a successful flooring business for 41 years and has experience in sales, marketing, accounting, and construction projects. An avid musician, he is also very active in the local blues and jazz scene.
All three men were once patrons of the Aztec Theatre, which sits near the southwest corner of Johnson Drive and Nieman Road, across from Shawnee City Hall.
At the council committee meeting last Tuesday evening, Jeffrey told the governing body his team spent the past several months putting together estimates for the project.
After crunching the numbers, it became clear to them that the only feasible way they could bring the theater back to life would be with a substantial investment from the city.
“We know without help from the city, it’s not a viable project for us,” Jeffrey said. “But we don’t want it to be a storage facility and it to be a blank in downtown. We want it to be a shining piece, the anchor of the city, especially with the Nieman Now project.”
Council members were torn by the idea of investing half a million dollars of the city’s money, which would come out of the economic development fund.
They agreed the historic theater needed to be revitalized, but many council members admitted they were nervous about spending so much of taxpayers’ money, especially without a stake in the property.
Councilwoman Stephanie Meyer said she wasn’t comfortable with the city investing $500,000 to do the entirety of the renovation, while the developers wouldn’t have any “skin in the game.”
She was also concerned with Aztec Group’s budget, which didn’t include costs for plumbing, a general contractor fee, or potential asbestos treatment.
“My concern is...if it doesn’t work out, the city is out half a million dollars,” Meyer said. “They own the investment and can sell it and make money on it.”
Councilman Dan Pflumm agreed, stating the city should have part ownership in the building, should the project not move forward after the investment or should the new owners choose to sell quickly afterwards.
Councilman Eric Jenkins concurred with his peers that there needed to be strong clawback provisions, so the city could recoup a majority of its costs, or an ownership agreement, to protect taxpayers.
“We need to have some sort of interest in this,” he said. “We can’t just say here’s $500,000 and gift it away. The taxpayers pay for that.
“I know some taxpayers would be really happy with that because they really want the theater, but there’s others who would say ‘man, what are we doing giving away half a million dollars? I don’t even want to go to this theater.’”
While Councilman Mickey Sandifer agreed with the rest of the council, he emphasized that it would be in the city’s best interest to help the downtrodden theater open.
“If we decide not to do anything with it, it’s going to be a storage facility,” he pointed out. “We’ll just have an empty building without even a marquee on it this time. Do we want that for the next 20 to 25 years?”
When he approached the podium, Jeffrey assured the council that his team members are all residents of Shawnee and they have no intention of taking the city’s money and selling the theater once it’s renovated.
He also agreed the city would need protection, since it would be investing a large amount of money. As a resident and taxpayer, he would have been appalled if the city hadn’t brought that up, he added.
Since the item was only up for discussion, no action was taken.
Now, the city and Aztec Group members will discuss the council’s concerns and iron out more details, before bringing a proposal to the city’s second city council meeting in September for a vote.
If an agreement is made, Aztec Group’s goal is to purchase the theater by Oct. 1, start renovation in November, create a marketing plan this winter and have a grand opening April 2018.
The Aztec Group follows in the footsteps of Liam and Marie Tripp, two other Shawnee residents who attempted to purchase the movie theater from Williams earlier this year.
After coming up with a business plan and forming a nonprofit organization to help fund the theater’s renovation and purchase, their dream came to a screeching halt when Williams pulled the plug on the sale before legal documents were signed.
The Aztec Group’s vision for the theater is fairly similar to the Tripps’.
Like the previous potential buyers, the Aztec Group sees potential for the theater to one day host events other than film, such as concerts, stand-up comedy and live speakers.
It is also working in cooperation with Shawnee Town 1929 and other groups in the area to lease the facility out for private showings or other activities.
But the Aztec Group’s main concept will be to establish the Aztec Theatre as a fine arts cinema, with 16 shows per week, which could draw around 700 people into downtown Shawnee each week.
Team members hope once thriving, the theater will have a spillover effect into other downtown area businesses.
Back in its glory days, the small but prominent Aztec Theatre drew thousands of people from all over the Kansas City area to its glittering marquee.
The theater, originally called the Mission Theater, opened 90 years ago this month, featuring silent films, “talkies,” and live stage performances.
In the 1940s, the theater was purchased and renamed the Aztec Theatre.
Dickinson Theaters owned and operated the Aztec until 1974 when it closed and sold to the Pflumm family.
In 2005, Williams purchased the theater and made some renovations, but never reopened it.