By a 6-2 count Wednesday, an ad-hoc advisory committee on the future of the historic Babcock Theatre selected Art House Cinema & Pub over a consortium known as Vintage Theater Partners.
The Billings City Council is scheduled to act on the committee’s recommendation during its Jan. 22 meeting.
Matt Blakeslee, founder and president of the 85-seat Art House Cinema & Pub, said that if the city council approves the committee’s recommendation and Art House and the city can agree on a lease and a contract, films can begin to be screened at the 750-seat Babcock Theatre in a matter of weeks.
Live performances will also be part of the mix, he said.
“To win this recommendation means the world,” Blakeslee said following the meeting, the committee’s last. He said it was gratifying “that there is this whole crew of people who love Art House and are passionate to make this happen.”
Blakeslee said he’s been in conversation both with 11:11 Presents’ Sean Lynch and the Alberta Bair Theater about staging live shows at the Babcock Theatre as well as movies.
“I am a passionate musician. I think the Babcock is a premier music venue in town, and we will utilize it that way,” Blakeslee said. “I have great admiration for the work Sean has put into the live music scene. The Pub Station (which Lynch owns) and Art House started at about the same time, and I believe a lot of the Art House’s success is because of what Sean has done. He has invested his life in live music and what it takes to put on a good show, and he understands Billings culture. There’s no greater resource we could have.”
Three entities — Outward Media Group, Knitting Factory Presents and Billings businessman Harvey Singh — formed Vintage Theater Partners. That partnership and Blakeslee made their cases Jan. 4 for the committee’s recommendation.
The city is still in the process of acquiring the Babcock, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Art House proposal includes $200,000 needed to make the theater operational for movies. That will purchase film technology, an audio/visual system and concession area renovations “to bring the Art House experience there,” Blakeslee told the committee.
The city council appropriated $500,000 for Babcock capital improvements during the 2017-18 fiscal year, recommending an additional $500,000 be authorized during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
About $175,000 to date has been spent on acquiring the Babcock's green room, leaving about $325,000 in the capital fund, said committee chairman Larry Brewster, who’s also a council member.
Committee member Jack Nickels said he liked the fact that Art House “has a board that can look out for the community’s asset in a proactive way.”
"Given the amount of time and the respect that Art House has earned in the community, they will have the easier time coordinating events and working with other cultural amenities to fill dates," Nickels said.