Keeper of the Plans

Deal to save the Starlite Drive-In is dead, would-be buyer says. ‘We were this close.’

A night at the Starlite Drive-In

Some of the sights and sounds associated with a night at Wichita's drive-in movie theater (April 2016).
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Some of the sights and sounds associated with a night at Wichita's drive-in movie theater (April 2016).

An effort to save the Starlite Drive-In is dead, says a drive-in theater owner who wanted to buy it.

“We were this close. We were this close to moving forward and reopening the drive-in,” said Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In in Buffalo, N.Y., who was trying to buy the Wichita drive-in with Blake Smith, co-owner of the Admiral Twin in Tulsa, Okla.

But they discovered Tuesday that the drive-in’s costly digital projectors have already been sold off — and cannot be bought back.

Without the projectors, the deal isn’t feasible, Cohen said.

The Starlite Drive-In closed on Oct. 13, as owner Chuck Bucinski reached a deal to sell the land to an undisclosed developer who wanted to construct a warehouse on the property.

But since Friday, the city of Wichita has helped to mediate a deal to sell the Starlite to Cohen and Smith and keep it operating.

The developer was willing to step back and let Cohen and Smith buy the theater, the two said.

But the digital projectors, which were purchased in 2013 for $187,000, had to be included in the sale.

“This whole deal that could have saved the drive-in theater got mucked up because Chuck sold the projectors,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, because of the projector issue, it’s no longer a viable deal.”

Tuesday’s developments

Since Bucinski announced the closing of the Starlite, there has been a growing movement to save Wichita’s last drive-in. Thousands have signed an online petition, and fans have rallied in-person.

Cohen and Smith publicly offered $750,000 to buy the drive-in, though Bucinski’s attorney, Jason Reed of Adams Jones Law Firm, had rejected the offer previously.

On Friday, the city of Wichita pleaded with the drive-in’s anonymous developer/buyer to reconsider tearing down the property and to come to the negotiating table.

That was apparently the final straw for the developer, who came to the city and council member James Clendenin, willing to walk away from the deal, Cohen said.

Clendenin, whose council district includes Starlite, mediated discussions as the developer offered essentially to transfer the sale of the Starlite Drive-In to the drive-in owners instead, Cohen said.

“We’ve been pulling out all the stops to try to save that theater,” Clendenin said.

Cohen said he gave a few conditions: that the Tuesday auction to dismantle the Starlite piecemeal be canceled, and that the projectors — bought in 2013 for nearly $100,000 apiece — be included.

Cohen said he increased his offer to purchase the Starlite to $850,000, to cover the income Bucinski would have received from the McCurdy auction.

Greg Kite, president of the Historic Preservation Alliance of Wichita and Sedgwick County, had offered to front the costs of McCurdy Auction canceling the scheduled auction if Bucinski changed his mind.

So McCurdy canceled the auction on Monday, leaving the sale to hinge on those projectors, which were purchased with the help of an extensive community fundraising campaign five years ago.

The projectors are gone, said Smith, who inspected the Starlite property on Tuesday.

Bucinski sold the projectors to a theater equipment dealer for about $25,000, Cohen said.

Bucinski checked with the dealer, and found the projectors had already been resold, Cohen said.

Because of this, the deal for the two to purchase the Starlite is “dead,” Cohen said.

“It was a struggle to make this thing work financially at $850,000, then to tack on another $200,000 on top of it — it’s just killed the deal,” Cohen said.

What happens now?

Cohen said the developer is still on the hook for the sale, which closes at the end of November.

The developer has already paid $200,000, which would be lost if they break off the deal, Cohen said.

He said Bucinski had been working on the sale for several months before announcing the closure of the theater in October.

Smith, the drive-in owner from Tulsa, said if it were possible, he would “probably be interested” in some type of lease agreement with the buyer.

“I’m willing to sit down and talk with people to try to help make something work,” he said.

Cohen applauded the Starlite buyer for being amenable to a possible deal.

But now, unless a generous donor steps forward — or a potential lease agreement can be hammered out — the Starlite may be done for.

There are 17 days until the sale closes.

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