No films in future for former downtown movie theatre


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What the former Towne Cinema 8 will become next is still up in the air, but it won’t be a movie theatre any time soon.

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What the former Towne Cinema 8 will become next is still up in the air, but it won’t be a movie theatre any time soon.

The sale of the downtown building is contingent on a “restrictive covenant,” a term used in real estate that limits the ways buyers can use a property. It’s a common clause used by large businesses ranging from grocery stores to fast-food chains to stop competitors from coming in and opening a similar business in its place.

Winnipeg-based Capital Commercial Real Estate Services Inc. is brokering the sale of 301 Notre Dame Ave.

“For example, when a gas station closes — there’s been lots of those in our city over the years — they will put a restrictive covenant on the title that doesn’t allow the sale of oil or gas on that site for a period of time. Typically, it’s 20 or 25 years,” Rennie Zegalski, a principal with the firm, said Friday.

The Towne had been operational for 40 years, and was known for keeping individual tickets $5 before it closed its doors six months ago.

Despite an initial pledge to return, for-sale signs went up on the building Thursday, with owner Landmark Cinema of Canada Inc. citing low audience numbers and post-pandemic staffing issues.

As to what the building could become, there’s a wide range of opportunities. Zegalski referenced the sale of the historic former Bank of Montreal downtown building to the Manitoba Métis Federation as an example of a transformative change to a well-known structure in Winnipeg.

“Or it just could be somebody looking to do multi-family (development), like a nice live-work-play experience in the Exchange District,” he said.

Its location is a draw for prospective buyers, Zegalski said, because getting property in the area that doesn’t have a heritage designation is challenging. The boundaries of the Exchange District’s National Historic Site do not include the Towne property.

“It is unique, I haven’t sold a theatre before in downtown,” he said.

It has a unique history, too.

Local historian Christian Cassidy fondly remembers his teenage years at its basement arcade in the 1980s.

When the Towne first opened in 1981, in what was once a dairy production building, it was billed as the first standalone multiplex theatre in Canada at the time (meaning it wasn’t attached to a mall or other attraction). It was also Canada’s first eight-screen movie theatre.

“It really kind of heralded a new era of Winnipeg theatres,” Cassidy said. “Because through the 1980s, a lot of new theatres opened… It was kind of on the front wave of that transformation of Winnipeg’s cinema-going amenities downtown.”

It was part of a cinema boom in the downtown, peaking in 1987, where at one point, there were 29 movie screens between nine theatres in the area.

As quickly as the rush began, Cassidy said, it declined.

Several theatres shut down in 1990-1991, likely affected by the influx in competition. Eventually, every commercial theatre downtown closed but Towne Cinema 8.

Art house theatre Cinematheque is now the last location screening movies downtown.

However, Cassidy was hopeful a commercial theatre with old-school affordable prices could return somewhere in the community.

“I think (the Towne is) a loss for the downtown as a neighbourhood — sometimes we talk about downtown as the central business district — but also for the neighbourhood of downtown. It was a great place to see a movie for not a lot of money.”

Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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