Running out of money, running out of time: Can the Westdale be saved?

‘Quite honestly, no one in our family is interested in running a theatre in Hamilton’

By Clare Bonnyman, CBC News Posted: Dec 29, 2016 1:52 PM

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The iconic Westdale Theatre is for sale at $1.8 million, leaving concerned fans worried for the future of the movie house. (Royal Lepage)

The sale of the Westdale Theatre is posing a challenge to Hamilton city councillors, who are desperate to save the historic space. But with a short timeline, distant owners and a long list of renovations, there’s no simple answer to the future of the theatre.

For sale at $1.8 million, the community and city council are concerned over the future of the iconic venue.

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Projectionist Jim Mair at the Westdale Theatre in 2012. (Paul Wilson/CBC)

Not like the movies

The current owners, the Toronto-based Sorokolit family, want to sell the Westdale. Independent movie theatres are struggling, they say, and they no longer want to be in the business.

‘The city councillor has been saying for years that he wants to save it, but the city councillor doesn’t want to put any money in it.’– Dawn Sorokolit

“We’re hoping someone who wants to keep it a theatre will buy it,” said Dawn Sorokolit. “Quite honestly, no one in our family is interested in running a theatre in Hamilton. We all live in Toronto.”

Her father bought the Westdale Theatre more than three decades ago, and now that he’s died, she said, it just doesn’t make sense. “It’s not hands on. We can’t be close to it and we can’t help run it.”

Add into that the pressure in recent years to pay for property assessments and upgrades to the theatre, and the Sorokolits have had enough.

City on a mission

“The City of Hamilton kept telling us oh, it’s got to stay a theatre, but when there’s no one to run a theatre, we’re not going to hold on to a business,” said Sorokolit.  “The city councillor has been saying for years that he wants to save it, but the city councillor doesn’t want to put any money in it. He wanted us to foot the bill for it.”

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Coun. Aidan Johnson has said repeatedly he wants to maintain the history and the value of the theatre, and protect it as a designated Ontario Heritage site. Since taking over from Brian McHattie in 2014, the Westdale has been on his radar, he said. The process of assessing it has already been fast-tracked, but isn’t coming quick enough now that the theatre has been listed.

“Several times I have reached out to Dawn Sorokolit proposing that we meet just for the sake of chatting, just to break the ice,” he said. “And so far we have not been able to get a meeting together despite my best efforts.”

Johnson said he probably visits the Westdale at least once a month. He loves movies. He has made it a priority to protect the Theatre. “I grew up going to movies at the Westdale,” he said.

Short of an immediate designation there’s not much the city can do now that the theatre is for sale, but Johnson is certainly trying.

“We as a community need to ensure that the next owner respects it,” he said. “I’ve been spending my Christmas break having various conversations with stakeholders who have ideas how to move forward with the cinema, and I’m very hopeful.”

The 1930s-era cinema has been a staple since the early days of Westdale Village, and an iconic site in Hamilton for more than 80 years.
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What needs to be done

In order to stay as a functioning business or theatre, there will need to be renovations and changes made to the building itself.

Virtually untouched for decades, the projector is still analog only, using film reels rather than a digital projector, which poses an issue for local filmmakers or local screenings.

‘As a building it has great character and history. But technically, I think it was falling behind.’– Nathan Fleet

Nathan Fleet, artistic director of the Hamilton Film Festival, was looking into the Westdale to screen a 35-mm film in 2015. But “the projector would need a few thousand dollars just to get it up and running,” he told CBC News in an email.

“As a building, it has great character and history,” he said. “But technically, I think it was falling behind.”

With looming Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act deadlines, the theatre needs renovations within the next year to get it up to code. By Jan. 1, 2018, all Ontario small businesses — those with up to 19 employees — need to make new or redeveloped public spaces accessible.

In 2014, the necessary renovations to digitize the theatre were estimated to cost $45,000. That bill could be much higher now, and require more creativity and business planning on the part of new owners.

“I don’t think anyone thinks the Westdale can only ever be a cinema,” said Johnson. “Independent movie houses are not big money makers.”

“I hope we can find a way to make a good plan for the Westdale cinema. I’m exploring everything that the city can do within its jurisdiction,” he said. “We’ll see where that leads.”

Use it or lose it

Today’s independent cinemas are being asked to be more than just cinemas. It’s not enough to just show movies, and whether it turns into a cafe or a classroom, people are suggesting the Westdale Theatre needs to be more than just what it has been.

“I remember how many people loved the Broadway when it was open, but you’d go see a movie there and you would be one of six people, which makes it impossible for a theatre to survive,” said Fleet.

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Between licensing, staff costs and utilities, he said, running a theatre takes a steady stream of people and a lot more than what the Westdale had going for it in recent days.

“I would much rather see restoration than demolition but it only takes me a few words to say that. It’s another thing for someone to eat the costs of that and make it happen,” he said.

But at the same time, he doesn’t want to lose it either.

“I actually had my first date with my wife there,” he said. “So it has a special place for me.”

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