After roughly five decades of being a community staple, Agawam Cinemas unexpectedly closed its doors in May of 2014. The small-town Massachusetts movie theater slowly deteriorated due to major structural issues and an inability to embrace new technology, but its closing still came as a shock to locals.
The credits were about to roll after decades of entertaining the local community, but Agawam resident Kimberly Wheeler had other plans. The frequent moviegoer and EMT trainer decided to make a drastic career switch to revitalize her hometown movie theater.
"Everybody thought I was nuts," Wheeler laughed.
While "nuts" might not be the right word, it's easy to see why Wheeler's massive undertaking of relaunching a closed business drew questions from family and friends. A week before its closing, the building was condemned. Wheeler explained how the final five years before the theater's closing were rough. There was no heat or air conditioning, and seeing a movie there during the Massachusetts winter wasn't for the faint of heart. Wheeler wasn't signing up for a minor project; she was taking on a massive task.
About a year and a half later, in November of 2015, Wheeler reopened Agawam Cinemas. The project required the support of dozens of people through a crowdfunding campaign, as well as $500,000 of work on the structure itself, much of which came from the landlord. More than three years later, the movie theater remains open and is once again a popular destination in the community.
Through Wheeler's unconventional journey, she's learned how to run a business and the adversity you face when trying to reopen a closed business. We spoke to Wheeler to gain insights from her mistakes and triumphs to better understand how to revitalize a closed business.
1. Pick the right venture.
Reopening Agawam Cinemas wasn't an easy project, but Wheeler did receive support from the local community, which wanted to see its movie theater come back to life. The average person might've seen a worn-down theater from 2010 to 2014, but Wheeler saw much more.
"I very distinctly remember being in there, bundled up, watching these $3 movies, and there would be everybody around me with blankets and scarves and mittens, but people were still coming," Wheeler said. "The fact that there were 10 of us in there freezing, watching this $3 movie, it really made me realize this place was special to a lot of other people. I figured, you know what, I think there's going to be enough power behind the movement."
Wheeler wasn't renovating a failed fast food restaurant the community didn't care for – the theater was a part of Agawam.
"Even though it was falling apart on the inside, everybody still loved it," Wheeler said.
If you decide to take a similar path to Wheeler, find a business that has community support. It's difficult enough to reopen a closed business – reopening one that didn't originally have local support is nearly impossible.
2. Enjoy the project.
"You have to love it," said Wheeler. "This is a labor of love. I'm never going to get rich doing it; I found that out right when we started. It's definitely something you have to love doing every single day, and when you stop, then hand the reins over to somebody else who does."
Creating a tech startup might eventually lead to millions of dollars in your bank account, but building a small-town movie theater up from closure probably won't. Wheeler recognizes why she runs Agawam Cinemas, and other small business owners should take note. For Wheeler, it's not about the money. She's more concerned with keeping a part of her childhood alive and ensuring the venue is around for other Agawam residents to craft special memories.
If you decide to open a new business or reopen a closed business, you'll need to care about the operation. Wheeler's descriptions of the movie theater, even when it was failing, were wrapped in joy. She described watching movies in the freezing theater with a giddiness that few others could replicate.
The theater meant enough to Wheeler that she was willing to leave her job for the opportunity to get it up and running again. It's one thing to like a floundering local business and want to save it; it's another to successfully act upon those feelings. If you attempt to reopen a closed business, make sure you're passionate about the project and willing to put in the work.
3. Understand the benefits and drawbacks of crowdfunding.
Assuming you elect to reopen or revitalize a local favorite, crowdfunding offers a chance to financially draw upon community support. The Agawam Cinemas website lists more than 200 donors who raised approximately $45,000 to help Wheeler reopen the theater. By using a crowdfunding campaign, the business was able to act on Wheeler's belief that the community wanted the movie theater reopened.
Considering the project needed significant financial backing and the community was behind the idea, a crowdfunding campaign made a good bit of sense. On the other hand, there are potential drawbacks of crowdfunding.
Letting so many people put money behind an idea can create tension. For example, Wheeler's backers became frustrated when the construction took much longer than anticipated. Wheeler originally expected the theater to open about a year before it did. The landlord handled the construction schedule, but this didn't stop donors from voicing frustrations. Wheeler handled this with increased transparency during the process. [See related story: 5 Tips for Crowdfunding Success]
"People were starting to get really frustrated, thinking that I just kind of took the money and ran away," Wheeler said. "We had to post pictures of the construction, and the little that was actually going on, we had to make sure we visually communicated that to everybody, so they could see I wasn't in Mexico drinking a margarita."
By keeping your backers involved in the process, it's much easier to reduce the pressure and potential backlash associated with crowdfunding campaigns.
4. Embrace the new, cherish the old.
Reopening a closed business requires a balancing act between improving upon the old business model and embracing the old way of doing things. You want to maintain some of the same principles that helped the business generate a foothold in the community, but there's also a reason the organization went out of business.
"We had to find a middle ground between modernizing and keeping it a small, independent, family-run cinema," said Wheeler.
In the case of Agawam Cinemas, the inability to afford new projectors hurt the business before its eventual closing. Wheeler recognized this weakness, embraced the new technology available when she took control of the business, and made sure to remember the value of the old technology.
"We took the old 35 mm projectors down, disassembled them, brought them down from the projection booth, down two flights of stairs, reassembled them and put them on display in the lobby," she said. "People that had been coming there for the last 40 years and had never actually seen any of the equipment got to look at it and said, 'Oh my God, this monstrous Buick of a machine has been showing me these movies for the past 40 years.'"
Agawam Cinemas modernizes to attract people from outside the community but keeps elements of its history to interest locals. Wheeler took advantage of new technology to show a wider variety of movies while also using the old equipment for an engaging display in the lobby. She understood the role outdated technology played in the business's demise and used that knowledge to improve the business.
The bottom line
Wheeler's journey is rare. Reopening a closed business requires a special organization, community help and a passionate business owner. Agawam Cinemas had all three. If you decide to open a closed business, your focus should be on recapturing the business's allure in the community while also fixing the errors that led to the business closing.