On the Brink of Demolition, Theater Reopening as Church

By Beacon Staff

The popcorn machine still sits idly in the lobby of the abandoned Gateway Cinema on the west side of Kalispell. Classic film projectors remain perched above the auditorium seats, some pointing through broken glass into each of the dark theaters that were once the most popular screens in town. “Hairspray” and other movie titles from the summer of 2007 adorn the interior marquees, as if the entire 24,000-square-foot building is frozen in a bygone era.

“I remember this old lobby and this walkway,” Paul Arends says as he tours the site, passing remnants of the old theater. “Last time I was in here was for ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ I remember coming up that ramp. It’s just a very distinct feeling to make your way through here.”

After approaching the brink of demolition multiple times since closing six years ago, the Kalispell icon is experiencing a revival of sorts.

Arends and the congregation at The River, a Christian church currently based on West Reserve Drive, are revitalizing the former Gateway Cinema and transforming it into a new church and coffee shop, expected to open early next year.

Arends, who is pastor at The River with his wife Margie, said the church acquired the old cinema building from owner Phil Harris with the hope of breathing life into the former beloved centerpiece.

“What other buildings in the valley have had as many people come through it than this?” Arends asked, describing Gateway Cinema’s lasting role in the community. “I think it has a lot of emotional and social equity. So I’m trying to be sensitive to that. How do we use this for God to get his work done, but also, we want to be sensitive to the fact that people feel like they have a connection here. I want to honor that somehow as much as I can.”

Members of The River have met weekly over the past months cleaning up garbage and countering the vandalism that has plagued the building since its closure. Redevelopment is continuing inside and out while the church awaits a building permit from the city planning department. A sale of old theater equipment is planned for Sept. 13 on site.

“We’re looking at what will make this place live again and make it feel like we’re an asset to the city now,” Arends says. “I want the city to look at what we’ve done here and feel like this is a major contribution to the city’s welfare.”

Opened in 1976, the original Gateway Cinema grew into a community anchor off U.S. Highway 2 on Kalispell’s west district, teaming with the nearby mall. Over the years, additional theaters were built onto the original building and it became the largest movie house in the valley. In 2006, 220,000 movie tickets were sold inside Gateway.

But the following year, the new age of cinema arrived. A 14-screen, 45,000-square-foot multiplex opened in Hutton Ranch Plaza on the north side of Kalispell. Harris closed Gateway Cinema and opened Signature Theater on Aug. 3, 2007.

The Gateway site has sat vacant ever since, particularly because of its proximity to the Spring Creek floodplain. Federal officials originally deemed it within reach if a massive flood occurred, raising the investment risk for prospective buyers. The cinema’s fate seemed destined for demolition and rumors circulated that the old cinema would become a parking lot or community park or hotel.

Then last year, Arends took a drive around Kalispell seeking a new home for The River. Several times he passed Gateway Cinema until finally he felt compelled to inquire.

“I really felt like God was directing me to this building,” he says.

The leap of faith proved worthwhile. The price was right and a new federal inspection discovered the building did in fact clear the floodplain, according to Arends. The church sold its current facility next to Eisinger Motors and began envisioning its new era on the other side of Kalispell. The planned coffee shop will fill one of the theater lobbies, while the other lobby will include a bookstore and office space. Several of the old theaters will remain intact, offering space for church conferences that frequent The River.

“Everybody has been very excited and positive about what’s happening here,” Arends says. “There’s just something about this building that attracts people. And that’s one of the reasons why God wants us to be here.”

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