Bonds could bring IMAX to Wichita

Bill Warren's been planning for months to build an IMAX auditorium at his first Wichita luxury theater, at 21st and Tyler.

If the Wichita City Council agrees Tuesday to issue $16 million in industrial revenue bonds, Wichitans could be watching first-run movies there by Christmas.

According to city documents, the bonds will go toward a 600-seat IMAX theater, a total remodeling of the 14-year-old theater's 17 auditoriums and refinancing $8.8 million in existing loans on the facility.

The IMAX theater and the renovations are estimated at $10 million, $6.5 million from the bond issue and $3.5 million in Warren's capital, theater officials said.

Bill Warren, the founder of Warren Theatres, did not return numerous phone calls for comment this week. However, the IMAX project has been on Warren's drawing board for about a year as the company reviews expansion possibilities.

City Council member Jeff Longwell, who represents northwest Wichita, called the project "exciting" while casting a wary eye toward City Hall critics who pan public-private partnerships.

"The problem we will have is that people don't understand IRBs," Longwell said. "They'll say it's another cheap loan to Warren, another way for a fat cat to get richer."

The proposed bond issue does not directly convey taxpayer money to the project. The city issues bonds that will be purchased by Intrust Bank, according to city documents.

Typically developers who receive IRBs also receive an agreement that they will not have to pay property taxes on the project.

Warren has agreed to make payments in lieu of taxes based on the assessed valuation of the project — $236,389 in the first year — with annual 2.3 percent increases.

"No one ever does that. Ever," Longwell said. "He's trying to go out of his way to make this so the public will be thrilled, not only with the IMAX project but the whole way the deal is crafted."

Warren also will receive a sales tax exemption on taxable property costs.

The IMAX project should be a big traffic generator to businesses in the area, developers said.

"As we understand it, IMAX theaters are tourist attractions," said Jerry Jones of Slawson Cos., the NewMarket Square developer. "So it should benefit the restaurants and businesses in the area and the city as a whole."

Jones said the bond issue is consistent with city incentives to other tourist attractions.

The IMAX screen draws about two-thirds of the visitors to the Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Center, said Marisa Honomichl, vice president of marketing and development.

She estimated that between 110,000 and 120,000 of the Cosmosphere's 170,000 annual visitors view IMAX shows.

The Cosmosphere doesn't show first-run films, instead showing shorter documentaries.

"We don't even really consider ourselves in competition with the local movie theater," Honomichl said.

According to the Warren proposal provided by the city, plans call for an additional 16,550 square feet at the 21st and Tyler location, including the IMAX auditorium.

Warren estimates that the IMAX will draw 300,000 first-year visitors, 150,000 from Wichita.

Also included are plans to construct two new 30-seat luxury screening rooms on the mezzanine and a complete remodel of the existing 17-screen complex, including new carpeting and new seating to bring it into line with the new IMAX auditorium.

It's Warren's second venture to City Hall to improve one of his Wichita theaters.

In June 2008 the company went to the city for a $6 million loan to renovate its struggling Old Town theater. The renovated theater reopened in July 2009.

It's also the second IMAX proposal in the past several years in the Wichita area. A group led by Dickinson Theaters proposed an IMAX-anchored retail center in Maize in 2007, but the project died for lack of funding.