In the years after World War II, Main Street in the City of Miamisburg was bustling. Quaint mom and pop shops and eateries drew visitors from all over the Miami Valley. But things changed. The rise of shopping malls in the 1970s and the loss of long-standing local business families in the 1990s left many buildings on the street vacant. But that’s all starting to turn around thanks in part to the reopening of the Plaza Theatre, a once shuttered 96 year-old movie theater at the center of town.
The plaza looks like an old Hollywood theater to me, like something out of a movie from the 20s. There’s rich blue carpeting, golden walls, and these beautiful antique-looking light fixtures.
Doug Sorrell is pretty impressed with the building too, and that’s because he had a major stake in its transformation. He’s part of the committee that brought the plaza back to life.
“We wanted it to feel like an old 1920s movie theater," said Sorrell.
Sorrell grew up in Miamisburg, and went to the theater as a kid. It closed in 1968, after a mall opened nearby. His parents opened a business in the space the next year. Sorrell sold the shop to another owner in 1994. By 2002, that business had failed and the building was vacant. By that time, a lot of places in Miamisburg were in distress.
“The 90s was when a lot of these little business families went away," said Sorrell. "They didn’t have anyone to take their place, and a lot of these buildings sat vacant."
It’s a pretty common story. Downtown Miamisburg, which was once a lively idyllic place filled with little locally-owned shops and unique restaurants, was declining. And for a long time, no one could quite figure out how to bring it back.
But then, Miamsburg Mayor Dick Church had an idea.
“I’ve always said the theater was the key success," said Church.
He knew if they could get that building filled, things would change. Maybe there would be a domino effect. But they needed a good business plan and good people to support it. They formed a committee to work on project, and Sorrell was a part of it. He came up with the idea to show only classic movies. And, he also was put in charge of one very important thing:
“I was invited to be a part of this committee because I know where the money is.”
Sorrell is as a charity auctioneer—he’s raised millions of dollars for different causes in the Miami Valley. So he walked up Main Street and talked to business owners he knew could benefit from the Plaza’s re-opening.
“It was face-to-face," said Sorrell. "Sitting down with people, sharing my enthusiasm for the project. And asking people if they’d like to be a donor.”
The majority of them wrote checks. One of them was Shawn Dodson, the owner of Bennett’s, a restaurant a few doors down from the Plaza. She donated $10,000.
“Well, dinner and movie go together, don’t they?" said Dodson. "I think it was a great idea and it’s really taking off.”
Sorrell raised $460,000 in 12 months, mainly from businesses on the same street as the Plaza. They immediately got to work restoring it, and it only took a few months. The plaza opened on Christmas Day 2015, 96 years to the day from its original opening date. Their first movie? Field of Dreams.
“Because if you build it, they will come,” Sorrell said.
And they did. Sorrell says most of their showings have been packed, but perhaps more importantly, 6 businesses have opened on Main Street since the Plaza reopened. That’s exactly what the mayor was aiming for.
“The theater now is going to be the nucleus to fill up the rest of those empty buildings,” said Church.
Many small towns have turned to restoration as a catalyst for economic development. In the Miami Valley alone, 2 formerly shuttered theaters have reopened, and another restoration project is in the works.