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  The Kansas City Star

AMC Entertainment is joining the Cordish Co. in a blockbuster plan to return movies to the Empire Theater and energize the Midland Theatre complex with live music and housing.

The $60 million joint venture is a deja vu moment of sorts for Kansas City-based AMC, whose late founder, Stan Durwood, tried in vain for more than 30 years to revitalize the downtown area now being redeveloped by Cordish, a Baltimore company.

In fact, both companies have agreed to call the roughly seven-block, entertainment-themed project the Power & Light District, the name coined by Durwood, who died six years ago Thursday.

“There have been eras of stops and starts, and hopes being up and being dashed,” said Peter Brown, AMC chairman and chief executive. “This is the end of all those eras. It’s truly happening. You can see … all the construction.”

The redevelopment plan, scheduled to be formally announced at a press conference this morning at the Midland, calls for the historic Empire Theater at 14th and Main streets to be restored as a six-screen movie theater using state-of-the-art digital technology to be operated by AMC. A restaurant also will be located in the 84-year-old building.

As for the Midland, AMC plans to contribute the historic theater and office building complex at 13th and Main to the larger project. Plans call for the office building to be converted into 40 residential condominiums, and the theater to be improved and repositioned as a live music venue featuring national, regional and local bands, and other entertainment.

Both the Empire and Midland projects are expected to be completed along with the remainder of the Power & Light development in spring 2007.

David Cordish, the company’s president, said having AMC on board provides added assurance the Power & Light District project, which has substantial financial backing from city and state development incentives, will be a success. The involvement of such a high-profile Kansas City company that is a proven draw at locations around the country should help with ongoing leasing efforts for the rest of the project.

“What you have happening here is these projects will serve as important anchors for the project that will be regional draws,” Cordish said.

“AMC deserves credit. It goes back to Stan Durwood. He had the vision for the Power & Light District. In fact, I liked the name so much we kept it.”

Durwood began pursuing his concept for a mixed-use downtown development in the 1960s. It evolved to become a dozen-block, $435 million plan that included a 30-screen theater.

City voters approved $176 million in public funding for the proposal in 1998, but the plan never moved forward and essentially died with Durwood in 1999.

Brown was the chief financial officer at AMC during the 1990s and was closely involved in the proposal at the time.

“Every now and then I wonder what would have happened if we were able to hook up with Cordish then, because they are top operators,” the AMC executive said.

Cordish has developed downtown entertainment districts in cities including Baltimore, Houston, Louisville, Ky., and Atlantic City, N.J. It was granted the development rights to seven blocks in the South Loop area of downtown Kansas City in 2003.

In December 2003, the firm revealed its plan for a 425,000-square-foot entertainment-related district, then called Kansas City Live. H&R Block also announced it would build its new headquarters as part of the redevelopment plan.

Last year, voters approved public financing assistance to help build an estimated $250 million arena, the Sprint Center, next door to the district at 14th Street and Grand Boulevard.

Mayor Kay Barnes said the participation by AMC in the revival of the South Loop is further evidence that downtown Kansas City is on the right track. City officials have estimated that $3 billion in projects have been started or announced.

“This is an exciting opportunity,” Barnes said. “When you have two premier companies going together in a partnership, it will provide an anchor and major impetus to our overall entertainment district.

“This is part of what meant so much to Stan Durwood. His dream for Kansas City’s downtown is now coming true.”

Brown said AMC, which is based downtown, became interested in teaming with Cordish soon after the announcement of Kansas City Live.

“We looked at what was going on and felt all along we wanted to pursue the right way to be complementary and synergistic to the project with the Midland,” Brown said.

“That notion led us to talk to Blake (Cordish) and David and the mayor to forge the partnership with the Midland and Empire.”

The Empire, a former vaudeville palace that opened in 1921, has been a familiar sight downtown because of its prominent terra cotta dome. It was a movie theater until its closing in the mid-1980s. Since then, the building has deteriorated to the point that two trees have grown on its roof. It is not listed as a local landmark and as a result was susceptible to demolition at any time.

The Empire always was contemplated as part of the entertainment district. But Blake Cordish, the company partner in charge of the Kansas City project, said the decision by AMC to join in the plan assured its future reuse.

“AMC’s plan has many more extras than what we had planned for the Empire,” he said. “We were trying to figure out ways to accommodate the latest … in technology in the existing building and it was becoming increasingly costly.”

Brown said AMC wants to use digital projection equipment at the Empire, and primarily screen foreign and independent films there.

“It will be a boutique theater with elements of a lot of different things we want to test,” he said.

Besides the six screens and 1,100 seats, the Empire will include an 8,000-square-foot restaurant. It will be available to anyone, but its intent is to be part of the moviegoing experience, David Cordish said.

“It’s a terrific atmosphere that works,” he said. “You can dine in the restaurant and then bring your drink with you to the movie.”

The Midland Theatre, which has been owned by AMC since 1966, has been used for live performances since 1981, and was renovated in 1988 and 1998. It was built in 1927 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

While the Midland has hosted Broadway plans and musicals, concerts, ballet performances and special events, Blake Cordish thinks his company can light it up much more often.

“The Midland is a historic gem, although we feel collectively it’s ripe to be revitalized and repositioned,” he said.

“We feel live performances and entertainment should be at the core. We want to go from a venue that’s dark the majority of the year to one that’s vibrant and alive 365 days.”

Plans call for the Midland stage to be deepened and some of the auditorium floor opened up, although Cordish said the capacity will remain about 3,500. Skyboxes are being considered, and the interior of the underused front section of the theater will be renovated to provide space for several restaurants and bars.

The 12-story Midland office building on the west side of the property will be converted to approximately 40 upscale condominiums averaging about 1,500 square feet. Residents are expected to have special access to events at the theater including a small bar, tentatively called “Backstage Pass,” where performers will be invited to play after the show.

“I think they’ll go like hotcakes,” said David Cordish.

He added the Midland condos will be in addition to the other condominium projects planned by his company for the remainder of the Power & Light District. That first phase calls for a 240-unit condo tower to be built on the site of the former Jones Store.

Cordish said having two historic buildings to incorporate in the entertainment district will add authenticity.

“We’ve learned the value of historic renovation, and I don’t mean on a civic basis,” he said. “From a financial standpoint, you’re creating something unique for people, buildings with unique, historic character. People beat a path there because they can’t get that in the suburbs.”

The partnership forged by AMC and Cordish was described by both as a 50-50 arrangement. Centertainment Development Inc., the subsidiary established by AMC to develop the original Power & Light project, is combining with KCL Midland-Empire Renaissance Investors LLC, a Cordish subsidiary, to form Midland-Empire Partners LLC.

Midland-Empire Partners will design, construct and operate the movie theaters and restaurant in the Empire, and the live theater, restaurant, bars and housing in the Midland Theatre and office building.

Brown said AMC was reaffirming its longstanding commitment to downtown. The firm traces its roots to the turn of the 20th century, when brothers Edward and Maurice Dubinsky crisscrossed the Midwest performing melodramas.

Edward Dubinsky settled in Kansas City and started acquiring theaters. When he died in 1960, his son, Stan Durwood, took over and built AMC into a nationally known movie exhibition brand, inventing the multiplex and popularizing the megaplex in the process.

From a practical point of view, AMC’s endorsement of Cordish also is expected to enhance the credibility of the Baltimore developer in the local community. While Cordish has been very successful nationally, there is still some local skepticism that it can deliver on all that’s being promised in the entertainment district. Some potential local tenants have expressed concern about high-rent structures in a heavily subsidized project in an unproven location.

The firm, as a matter of policy, has not announced tenants for the project, although Cordish officials have said they have commitments for 75 percent of the space.

“The fact AMC is so committed to downtown is a major statement,” David Cordish said. “They deserve a lot of credit, and it should be heartening and reassuring to the political and business structures. … It’s a huge statement of their confidence. I wish we had an AMC every place we were.”

Brown said based on the research his company did for the original Power & Light, and with the reputation Cordish enjoys nationally, the entertainment district should have no problems.

“I have no reason to doubt there won’t be a roster of great tenants that locate in this project, and us stepping up won’t be lost on some of the tenants,” he said. “I hope this will kick the door and open it to all the others.”

Redevelopment milestones

2003
Cordish Co. of Baltimore obtains redevelopment rights for a downtown entertainment district.
H&R Block announces plans to build a new world headquarters downtown.

2004
Anschutz Entertainment Group agrees to help finance and manage the new Sprint Center arena.
Voters approve public financing assistance for the arena.

2005
AMC Entertainment and Cordish reach a deal to redevelop the Empire and Midland theaters.

Reproduced with permission of The Kansas City Star © Copyright 2006 The Kansas City Star. All rights reserved. Format differs from original publication. Not an endorsement.

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