Theater projects taking shape in Fayetteville, Bentonville

by Paul Gatling (pgatling@nwabj.com) 218 views 

When it comes to downtown nightlife, the cities of Bentonville and Fayetteville are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of options.

The former, where alcohol sales were legalized only four years ago, is just beginning to establish its place, aided by the growing number of young professionals moving to the city and who are accustomed to nightlife.

The reputation of the latter has long been well-known, largely because of the words “Dickson Street,” the after-dark heart of the city.

Both areas, though, are equally appealing to investors when it comes to creating additional entertainment options — specifically movie theaters. In Bentonville, construction is underway on a 15,761-square-foot facility that will show first-run films on a combined six screens. The site is just a few blocks south of the downtown square, at the northwest corner of Southwest Fourth and A streets.

A separate development group is planning to open an independent movie theater/event venue in Fayetteville on Dickson Street, underscoring the idea that demand for entertainment options remains strong, even in the region’s most bustling nightlife district.

Greg Billingsley, Ross Cully and Brian Hill, all of Fayetteville, have targeted a 0.15-acre site at 227 W. Dickson St. to build a 15,000-square-foot facility. They’ve submitted their plans to the city and expect to raze the building at the site in the coming months.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind project for us,” said award-winning Fayetteville architect Marlon Blackwell, who designed the theater, which is called Lumiere. “And it will act as an anchor for the east end of Dickson Street, which I think has been needed for a while.”

A Place for People To Come Together
Billingsley, a technology consultant and a self-proclaimed “computer nerd,” said he expects the project to go out for bid by early December.

“All the boxes we have to check, we’ve started a lot of those,” he said.

The building at the site now previously housed popular Fayetteville nightclub Dickson Street Theater. Cully, CEO of Rogers-based sales and marketing company The Harvest Group, and Billingsley purchased the building from Jimmy and Molly Rapert for $630,000 in September 2014. Hill has the film industry experience of the three developers, Billingsley said, and will operate the theater.

Lumiere will include two theater screens on the first floor, each with seating capacity for about 50 people, and capable of being converted to small classrooms or meeting spaces. A lounge, café and bar will also be housed on the ground floor, and the rooftop terrace overlooking Dickson Street will also be utilized for outdoor movie nights and other social functions for up to 50 people.

The main auditorium and theater will occupy the second and third floors and have seating for up to 300 patrons. It will serve a variety of uses other than screening films, including musical performances and corporate events. Billingsley said hosting events associated with the annual Walmart Shareholders Week each summer is also a prospect being explored.

“We’ve also talked with the Walton Arts Center to partner with them on some after-party events,” Billingsley said. “It goes back to the community. We want to use this building for lots of different purposes. We would love to have the University of Arkansas involved. One of our goals with this project is to bring different groups of people together. Millennials, college students, professionals — there are many different groups we think could really enjoy this venue and come together as a community. We’re really happy about that.”

After construction is complete, Lumiere will also be the permanent home for Sunday worship services of Christ Community Church. The church met at Dickson Theater for more than two years until September 2016, when it relocated temporarily to the Mount Sequoyah Conference Center.

In addition to smaller-budget films and documentaries, Lumiere will also show cinema classics, but with a twist. Billingsley offered a scenario like this: a screening of the Steven Spielberg classic, “Jaws,” paired with food and drink specials of sushi and Bloody Mary cocktails.

“That’s how these guys are thinking,” Blackwell said. “Who knows, ‘Gone with the Wind’ might have a three-day run, or ‘Citizen Kane,’ and with that, the café and bar could create another dimension to go with the movie. They’re trying to be creative and engaging.”

‘Otherworldly’, But Not Overly Grand
Blackwell has been involved with the developers almost immediately after they bought the property more than two years ago. Billingsley said their idea has always been to take old cinema ideas and bring them to a modern era. Blackwell and his team have made that vision a reality.

“Marlon has been absolutely great to work with,” Billingsley said. “They caught our vision early and have taken a lot of those ideas and made them a part of the building. We’re really pleased with his work.”

Blackwell determined during a feasibility study building a new structure — as opposed to repurposing the existing building — would be the best strategy for development, and the small lot dictated a vertical structure.

“We didn’t want to make it too overly grand; it’s still Dickson Street,” he explained. “There’s lots of wood and street-level bars, and it will connect with that, but we wanted to elevate it and disconnect it. Like it’s otherworldly.”

The glass façade of the second and third floors will suggest it’s a public space, Blackwell said. It’s just not on the street level.

“That’s why we pushed things to the street to make it as urban as we could,” he said. “It will be part of the nightlife of the street, and simultaneously people can look up into it.”

Blackwell said he couldn’t point to any one feature that’s most unique about Lumiere. He did promise, though, the theater itself will be a treat, with something more than your average Malco stadium seating space.

“For me, what’s most exciting about it is the presence on the street,” he said. “It’s more transparent, and I love the fact we have all these activities stacked up on the street.” 

Cinema Returning To Bentonville
Lumiere will add to Fayetteville’s existing movie theaters that show widely distributed films — Malco Razorback Cinema, AMC Fiesta Square and the 112 Drive-In.

The new downtown theater in Bentonville, however, will bring Hollywood films to the city for the first time since the mid-1980s. The Plaza Theater at 128 W. Central Ave. was the last movie house in Bentonville. It opened in 1927 as the Meteor Theater, according to the Benton County Historical Society and was renamed in 1940. Les Key, who took over the vacant building in 2014 and owns the event venue Meteor Guitar Gallery, said the last feature film ever shown at the Plaza was “The Rose,” a 1979 film starring Bette Midler. Key said that was in 1985.

Progress on Bentonville’s downtown theater is further ahead in development than Lumiere. Commercial construction company Flintco is using a building permit valued at $2.38 million to build the facility and Polk Stanley Wilcox is the architect. It is expected to be open and screening first-run movies next spring.

The Northwest Arkansas Downtown Revitalization Fund, which is funded by members of the Walton family, is developing the theater. A Walton-led entity bought the 1.44-acre site in the summer of 2015 for $1.57 million. The site is catty-corner from the Thrive mixed-use development and directly across Southwest Fourth from the site being developed by First National Bank of NWA.

The theater will have two large screens, four smaller screens and a bar. The building will be leased to a Texas company called DuOpt Bentonville. Through the Ghidotti Communications public relations company, both the theater owner and operator declined an interview for this story.

Besides an additional entertainment option for moviegoers, it’s almost certain the new theater will supplement the growth of the Bentonville Film Festival, co-founded by actress Geena Davis in 2015. The third annual event is May 2-7, 2017.

The fact such an event was launched in a city without a movie theater caught the attention of The New York Times, which ran a story in May 2015 under the headline, “Bentonville, Ark., Hosts a Film Festival Without a Movie Theater.”

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