CRENSHAW — The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency has agreed to put $788,000 into a proposed joint venture to open an eight-screen movie house in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza.
The success of the joint venture hinges on the ability of the owners of the Baldwin Theater, the nation's only first-run, black-owned theater, to conclude an agreement with the Kansas City-based AMC Theater chain, which operates 1,600 theaters in 24 states.
But the agency's decision last week to contribute to the financial package is the first major indication that the long-awaited agreement is close to being signed.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel," said Kenneth Lombard, executive vice president of Economic Resource Corp., a Lynwood-based nonprofit company that owns the Baldwin Theater. "This is indeed an important step toward finalizing an agreement."
Lombard said there are only a few loose ends to tie up in the complex package to finance the $5.7-million theater.
Alan Benjamin, vice president with AMC Realty Inc., said his company is looking forward to completing the negotiations. "It's a fair deal and it reflects the market conditions" he said. "All parties will share in the success of the theater."
He said his company and the Baldwin Theater officials are shooting for a Christmas opening.
The venture also has the support of the Community Development Department and the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, which have earmarked $1,212,000. Of the total $2 million that would be available from the city, $500,000 would be in the form of loans. The City Council must approve these allocations.
Also, the Alexander Haagen Co., which developed the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza with the agency, has said it would contribute $3.1 million to the project. Inner Cities Cinema Inc., the newly formed joint venture group, will put up nearly $700,000.
Since the mall opened its doors in 1989, Haagen officials have been seeking to put a theater in the plaza as one way to boost foot traffic. But efforts to negotiate a deal have been hampered by community pressure to get a minority operator and a reluctance of major theater operators to locate in the largely middle-class black community.
Although Haagen officials negotiated with the owners of the Baldwin Theater for almost two years, the talks were unsuccessful. The theater owners were unable to negotiate the kind of deal they wanted, in large part because the black-owned theater lacked the national name recognition to attract other major retailers to sign leases in the mall.
The Baldwin Theater did have community support, so much so that plaza officials were unable to convince an interested AMC to sign a deal if it would be seen as forcing out Baldwin Theater, which operates a three-screen theater on nearby La Brea Avenue.
A compromise was reached last year when plaza officials began encouraging AMC and the Baldwin Theater to form a joint venture.
"All parties realize the uniqueness of the agreement," said William R. Price, the CRA's project manager. "What we have in AMC is a theater operator who has a willingness to operate in a minority market. And then you have ERC (Baldwin Theater), which has a long record of serving the minority community."
For years, residents of Crenshaw, Leimert Park, View Park, Baldwin Hills and Ladera Heights have had few neighborhood theaters to choose from.
Price predicted that the new theater will have the same enthusiastic response as the new Lucky supermarket, which was overflowing with customers when it opened.