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Chain Eyes Mall as Site for Cinema : Business: Plaza officials are promoting a joint venture between AMC Theater company and the black-owned Baldwin Theater nearby.

December 05, 1991|JOHN L. MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Kansas City-based AMC Theater chain, which operates 1,600 screens in 24 states, is looking into operating a multi-screen theater at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The chain's involvement could be a boon to the beleaguered mall.

But AMC does not want to get involved in the project if it could be seen as forcing out Baldwin Theater, the nation's only black-owned, first-run theater, which operates a three-screen movie house on nearby La Brea Avenue.

"It is a very sensitive issue," said Alan Benjamin, AMC's vice president who was reluctant to elaborate on the talks. "There are many community interests involved, and we want to be sure we understand all of them. Right now we are in a fact-finding mode."

Mall officials, who have reopened talks with the Baldwin Theater, have suggested a joint venture between the two theater operators as a way to bring a movie house into the shopping center and deal with the community's concern about minority involvement.

A joint venture would have the added benefit of putting a major national theater in the mall, which in turn could be used to attract other national retailers.

"It would be the best of all worlds, a situation where everyone wins," said Fred W. Bruning, a spokesman for Alexander Haagen Co. which developed the plaza with the city's Community Redevelopment Agency.

He said a "black-owned company with great roots combined with the national bragging rights of a major chain" would increase foot traffic and boost the number of leases at the mall from 60% to 90%.

A multi-screen theater would be just what the plaza needs to encourage more retailers to sign up. "There is a herding instinct with retailers," he said.

The joint venture would also fit nicely into the Baldwin Theater's plans, said Kenneth Lombard, executive vice president of Economic Resource Corp., a Lynwood-based nonprofit company that owns the Baldwin Theater.

Lombard said his company has been investigating the possibility of entering into ventures with major national chains as a way of moving into minority communities nationwide. Economic Resource Corp. is considering a number of possible locations, including Carson and Oakland.

"Minority communities are severely underserved markets," he said. "Ideally, we would like to have as a partner a major industry player which would allow us to negotiate from a position of strength."

A joint venture in the plaza is only in the discussion stages, but the current rounds of talks represents a significant improvement over the mood two months ago when talks that would have given the Baldwin Theater the sole operating rights collapsed.

Theater officials dropped a bid to move into the plaza after the city's Community Redevelopment Agency and the Haagen Co. refused to go along with a financial package that would have cushioned the potential burden of operating a small 1,100-seat movie house in the mall. Lombard said a theater that size would not generate enough revenue to cover the lease debt payments on a $2-million loan to improve the property.

After other national theater chains expressed similar concerns about the size. Haagen Co. officials changed the size of the theater proposal to more than 1,800 seats

Talks then were reopened with Baldwin Theater officials, who have the option of taking the current offer and going it alone.

The larger theater piqued AMC officials' interest, but they were worried about possible political fallout, Bruning said.

When the idea of putting a theater into the mall first came up, Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) said she would protest any move that left out the minority-owned Baldwin Theater.

But Bruning said mall officials are less concerned with who owns and operates a mall theater than with finding a way to get one into the mall.

Without a signed deal for a theater, he added, mall management may have to make changes concerning the quality of stores in the plaza.

"The mall can't stand another season with this many vacant spaces," he said. "We have to stop the hemorrhaging and get the mall to the point to where the smaller tenants don't feel like they are hanging on by a thread."

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