"Business as usual" does not apply.
For its senior project, Lees-McRae College's business administration senior research class could leave a lasting mark on the town of Banner Elk. They'll likely leave a landmark instead.
The defunct Center Theatre in downtown Banner Elk has been closed since 1977, and an ambitious group of 17 students has set to restore it for Lees-McRae and the community at large - provided they find the funding.
"By the students, for the community, on the campus of Lees-McRae," senior Dane Robinson said at a project presentation last Thursday at Lees-McRae College (LMC).
He asked attendees to take a brief trip back in time.
"Imagine yourself in 1949," he said. "TV hasn't come over the mountain yet, World War II has recently ended. There's a very optimistic feeling."
And rightfully so. Up until then, Banner Elk residents had no venue for cinema. But that same year, the Center Theatre on Banner Road opened with the Burl Ives western, Green Grass of Wyoming.
The theater and its patrons celebrated 28 years of movies until its closing in 1977, after the last showing of the Burt Reynolds-Jackie Gleason classic, Smokey and the Bandit. Thirty-three years later, the Center Theatre's seeing a new kind of patron.
"In fall 2010, the senior business research class came together and decided the theater needed to be reborn," Robinson said.
Robinson said he and his classmates spent around 2,000 hours compiling research and developing business and marketing plans, resulting in a mission statement "to boost local entertainment and create sustainable value for the surrounding community and the students of Lees-McRae."
Robinson added that the Center would offer LMC students real-world experience in operating a cinema, as well as learning opportunities in general business.
But first there needed to be an interest.
The class pulled 232 students from the total student body for surveys, senior Dane Garvik said, and 95 percent supported the notion of a movie theater on campus.
The Center would screen second-run and pre-home films, those that have been showing at larger theaters for some time and those in limbo between theaters and home video release, respectively - more or less a 12- to 15-week period after a film's initial release.
According to the survey, 94 percent of LMC students preferred comedies, 89 percent action, 66 percent horror, 66 percent romance, and 59 percent LMC sporting events.
"There are very strong numbers indicated with each one of these genres ... which means we have a broad mix ... of what we can showcase at this theater," Garvik said.
And the theater wouldn't skimp on the movie-going experience. The final product would feature a fully functional and loaded concession stand - popcorn, candy, sodas, "everything you get at a standard, large-scale theater," Garvik said.
But the Center would offer something its large-scale counterparts do not. Under the plan, it would be aligned with CATCH (Campus After the Class Hours), Garvik said, bringing comedians, bands and other live entertainment, while also serving as an educational venue for speakers, public announcements and other classroom activities. And then there's work study, where students can gain credit for working at the theater.
The theater would be marketed through a multimedia campaign - fliers, websites, newspapers, magazines - and films and promotional material would come from Swank Motion Pictures, a film distributor specializing in second-run and pre-home releases.
But in the meantime, the graduating business students - and their successors in the class of 2011 - will have to finance the concept, with a little help from their community.
In crunching numbers, students arrived at a total cost of $713,000, including building renovations, equipment furnishings and all associated licenses and fees. They would spearhead a six-month capital fund drive to raise at least 50 percent of those upfront costs, with any remaining initial costs to be attained through issuance of five- to 10-year bonds or loans.
"If we receive $713,000 right away, we don't have to finance any further," Garvik said. "We pay it back instantly, there is no turnover."
As an example of fundraising avenues, Garvik mentioned honorary chair plaques and brick donations, as seen in area auditoriums and downtown Banner Elk.
Once 50 percent is raised, implementation could begin, Garvik said, adding that when operational, the theater could make a profit of $34,000 a year through concessions and ticket sales, due to low overhead from LMC support, namely the student activity budget.
A portion of tuition for every LMC student is allocated toward this budget, and a redistribution of that toward the Center Theatre could generate $70,000, Garvik said.
Since students would gain free admission, ticket sales would fall on the community - something senior Austin Wright hopes residents and visitors would gladly embrace.
"Not only would it be attractive for students ... it would be an attraction in summer and winter," Wright said, adding that comfortable pub tables and sofas would complement the traditional row-by-row seating for a capacity of 130 people.
The theater could not only screen television LMC sporting events, but also community events, like homecoming in summer, the Woolly Worm Festival in October and Relay For Life. "It's utilized for a ton of events during the semester, but also for seasonal events," he said, mentioning ideas like a Humphrey Bogart film festival, an "Alumni Frolic Week," summer conferencing, outdoor sporting-related films and, of course, availability to the private sector.
Run by a general manager with paid salary, likely to be recruited externally, the Center would employ five students as staff, with positions also available in finance, marketing and human resources.
Operating hours would be Thursday through Sunday, from 5 p.m. till midnight, with two films per run and two showings a day (one of each movie). Admission would cost $5 for community members, $3 for LMC faculty and staff, and nothing for students.
Further, the Center would be nonprofit, Wright said, under the college as a separate entity, but also under the college umbrella. To that tune, a scholarship would be created to assist up to four students in amounts between $500 and $1,500.
But first the feature presentation. Were financing in place, construction and renovation would take an approximate nine months, Wright said, adding, "We believe this business plan is sustainable for the theater at Lees-McRae."
And also for future business students.
"The goal of the project is to pass it on to the seniors below us, have them pick up where we left off," Robinson said.
"This is not just a grade," Garvik said. "We know that if this pans out to work ... it gives back not only to us, but the school and the community. It has some life to it, it has some flesh; it's not just a paper outline ... It was an experience."
And their professor, business administration program director Forrest Pulley, couldn't be prouder, calling this one of the most ambitious senior projects he's seen. Typically, the seniors tackle a different project each year, he said, but the momentum from this year's is likely to continue into next.
"It's the one that's taken on the most life," Pulley said. "It started as an academic exercise and grew from there."
And growth is necessary. With a budget of nil, the students' next step is to commence the six-month capital fundraising campaign, a plan they'll submit to the LMC Board of Trustees this month.
The 2010 business administration senior research class includes Jon Arthur, Ben Corbalis, Joe Daher, Lauren Dickover, Kyle Ficken, Dane Garvik, Sam Keesler, Vlady Nikolov, P.J. Noto, Thomas Rea, Kendall Reese, Dane Robinson, Nathan Smith, Lee Squires, Justy Tevid, Austin Wright and Marko Zivkovic.