Politics & Government

Wichita City Hall wants to step in and save Starlite Drive-In

Starlite fans rally to save iconic drive-in theatre

Fans of the Starlite Drive-In gathered at Chapin Park on Saturday to hold a rally that they hoped would convince the current owner of the business not to sell it to developers.
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Fans of the Starlite Drive-In gathered at Chapin Park on Saturday to hold a rally that they hoped would convince the current owner of the business not to sell it to developers.

Wichita City Hall joined the fight to save the Starlite Drive-In on Friday, calling on the owner to pause efforts to turn it into a warehouse complex.

Mayor Jeff Longwell and City Council member James Clendenin posted that plea on the city’s Facebook page.

“We are extremely disappointed in the potential loss of a longtime, iconic quality of life amenity for our community that means so much to so many,” the posting said. “We plead with the seller to put a hold on the selling of any assets of the drive-in this coming Tuesday and invite the city, community, philanthropists and potential investors or developers to the table to formulate a solution that preserves a drive-in in our city.”

Owner Chuck Bucinski has been working to permanently close the drive-in and sell its assets, including two $100,000 projectors partially paid for in 2013 by a community fund-raising effort.

Bucinski is planning to sell the land for redevelopment, likely as a warehouse/distribution center with a small strip of retail along the south edge of the property on MacArthur. The drive-in is at 3900 S. Hydraulic.

Longwell said the city is hoping to meet with the seller, buyer and community supporters of keeping it a drive-in.

“We’ll see if it gets any traction,” he said.

Clendenin said the idea is to “come up with any available solution that benefits everyone.”

Supporters of the Save the Starlite movement applauded the gesture but say they want the city to rescind a zoning change that removed a property restriction requiring to it remain a drive-in theater.

“It’s a good move, but it’s not all they need to be doing,” said Leif Jonker, a leader of the community group. “We need to know if there was a deal in place before the zoning meeting.”

The City Council approved that change in August.

Bucinski, who inherited the theater from longtime owner Jim Goble, indicated at the time he needed that zoning change for estate-planning purposes.

Offer to buy drive-in rejected

Earlier this week, an eleventh-hour effort by a New York-based drive-in owner to save the Starlite fell short.

Rick Cohen, owner of the Transit Drive-In in Buffalo, N.Y., had publicly offered $750,000 cash to purchase the drive-in, which he intended to reopen.

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.

Over the weekend, attendees at a “Save the Starlite” rally held at Chapin Park were told there was a slight chance the Starlite could be saved.

Bucinski’s attorney, Jason Reed, had contacted Cohen about his offer to purchase the drive-in and asked for his highest possible offer.

On Monday, Reed wrote back to Cohen, saying: “Based on the offer made, the parties are not going to be able to proceed forward.”

Those close to Goble, the Starlite’s owner from 1998 until his death in 2015, say he willed the drive-in to Bucinski, who did not have the money to purchase it outright – despite Goble fielding offers from Cohen and another drive-in owner to purchase the Starlite.

The assumption was that Bucinski would keep the Starlite open as a drive-in, or if not, that he would sell it to someone who had that same intention, Cohen said.

A video tribute to Goble and longtime manager Jim Quick that aired during the theater’s 2016 season confirmed as much: A slide on the video read that “It was very important to both of these men that The Starlite continue operation as a drive-in. Jim Goble made special arrangements to ensure this theatre’s survival. So, with your support, the Starlite will be here for many years to come.”

Bucinski told his employees he was closing the drive-in because of rising costs, which were essentially squeezing him out of business.

Cohen, who was a close friend of Goble’s, has disputed the Starlite could have been in financial distress, saying it was one of the best-attended drive-ins in the country.

“Its attendance numbers were the envy of almost every other drive-in operator who looked at them,” he said. “Profitability here was not an issue.”

Bucinski himself said the Starlite was “one of the nicest drive-ins in the country” in an Eagle interview in April 2016, shortly after taking over as owner.

Bucinski at that time said he was looking forward to “keeping the status quo — Jim Goble and Jim Quick would have wanted it that way.”

At that time, Bucinski told the Eagle “as long as the town of Wichita continues to come, continues to support, we’ll be here for many more years to come.”

Bucinski has not commented on the Starlite situation since the theater was closed — and since then, the drive-in’s Facebook page has been deleted and its website has been locked.

One of the mortgage holders associated with Goble’s estate said the property had been valued at around $1 million. Sedgwick County had the property appraised at $560,810 in 2018.

The identity of the Starlite’s buyer has been a tightly guarded secret.

Some online have speculated QuikTrip Corporation bought the land, though a QuikTrip representative called that “nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor,” according to Jonker. He said the QuikTrip rep added that she wished for “the best of luck with your endeavor to save the theatre.”

The two-screen outdoor theater, which was one of only four still operating in the state — the only one in south-central Kansas — successfully navigated the transition to digital projectors in 2013 thanks to an extensive community fundraising effort.

It opened as the Rainbow Drive-In in 1953 and became the Landmark Twin in 1974.

The last movies to play on its screens were “Searching” and “Crazy Rich Asians” on Oct. 13.

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Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas