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Story Last modified at 10:52 a.m. on Thursday, March 10, 2011

Boom and bust: Eagle River gains 'new' theater, sports bar
But some established retailers struggle in dicey business climate

BY ZAZ HOLLANDER
Alaska Star

photo:News

John Schweiger, CEO of Coming Attractions Theaters Inc., stands in front of a movie poster on March 4, the day his company took over Eagle River Cinemas.
Star photo by Zaz Hollander

Big shifts are sweeping downtown Eagle River's business scene with some new players opening their doors even as others shut down for good.

A new operator just took over the movie theater, now called Eagle River Cinemas.

An Oregon company on March 4 took over Eagle River's somewhat dated six-screen movie theater with an eye on the economy.

Seeing a movie at Eagle River Cinemas will cost $7.75 instead of $9 or $10, with matinees $6.50, according to John Schweiger, CEO for Oregon-based Coming Attractions Theaters Inc.

The company, which is also building a $12 million multiplex in Wasilla, is investing at least $1.5 million in the Eagle River theater, Schweiger said. That cost includes a new sound system, digital equipment and three screens with 3-D capability.

There's a bank of new games in the refurbished arcade area and the snack bar got a makeover and a new menu that includes pizza.

Schweigert said he swapped out most of the circa-1985 seats for newer ones, and removed every other row where old seats remain to give patrons more room.

It's possible the Eagle River cinema could some day include a bistro with beer and wine as the Wasilla theater will, but that's yet to be decided.

Coming Attractions is on a standard five-year lease with a five-year option, according to Walter J. Hickel III, vice president of Hickel Investment Co., the theater building owner and prior operator. Revenues at theaters around the state and around the country are down, Hickel said. It makes sense to hand over the movie operation to Schweiger, who operates about 20 locations in Washington, Oregon and northern California.

"He owns a bunch of theaters. It's just what he does. He's the expert," Hickel said. "We're going to go back to the landlord business."

Meanwhile, the town's first sports bar, Aztecs Sports Bar and Grill, is slated to open in April along the Old Glenn Highway, in the former Mongolian barbecue restaurant location.

Owner Gary McCutcheon was until recently general manager at the Peanut Farm, the popular creekside bar and eatery along the Old Seward Highway.

McCutcheon said he liked the way the space was set up – lots of room for the plasma TVs he plans to hang on the walls – and the location right along Eagle River's main artery.

He described the menu as "American-Mexican sports bar fare" heavy on appetizers but also burgers, sandwiches and tacos al pastor with meat cooked on a rotating spit and sliced to order.

McCutcheon said he plans to expand in phases. Aztecs will serve beer – 16 handles on draft – and wine to start.

"I've been managing sports bars for 14 years," he said. "I've always wanted my own restaurant."

Uneasy year

Joining the other new businesses coming to town, the popular Bear Mountain Grill is reopening, perhaps as early as this weekend.

But all these new entries don't necessarily signify a return to boom times. Several business owners here, especially independent retailers, say they remain uneasy about the financial picture this year. They say the national recession that hammered the Lower 48 is still being felt in Eagle River, plus retailers continue to lose customers to Anchorage and the Web.

Bear Mountain Grill owners Brenda and Ron Sabato recently closed their thrift store, Bric-A-Brac, to reopen the restaurant, which they operated from 2007 until 2009.

The economy factored into the decision, Brenda Sabato said. The couple's daughters, Alexis Kallen and Rachael Sabado, run the side-by-side shops Baby Belly & Beyond and consignment boutique Red.

The girls will be helping out at the restaurant to earn extra money, with Kallen running both sides of their stores while her sister works at Bear Mountain.

Ron will return to his position as cook, and the restaurant menu will offer the same breakfast and lunch items – salad bar, breakfast buffet, homemade desserts – but the family also hopes to start serving dinners by summer once they get a beer and wine license.

The Sabados loved the restaurant business and are happy to be returning to it, Brenda Sabado said. But they're also reopening in part to give their daughters some extra income this year.

"As a family, we're actually combining the businesses in order to make it through the hard times that everybody is going through," she said.

Chamber membership down

Several merchants said they were hoping to survive what they expect to be a tough year but didn't want to be identified. River City Saloon had its last day in business on Friday, March 4. A representative said the bar might reopen but didn't know where or when.

The local Radio Shack will be closing as owners Myrna and Scott Brooks retire.

The Brooks operated the local Radio Shack for more than 14 years. They plan to close by summer.

A mailer they sent to more than 1,000 local residents thanks Chugiak-Eagle River and surrounding communities for their business and support and announces that, "All products are discounted immediately, and will continue to be marked down until sold."

Myrna Brooks said retiring is a "good thing" for the couple, who are ready to retire and visit with their children Outside. They're also ready for a break from the commute in from Big Lake.

She tried to sell the store for quite some time, Brooks said. But financial problems factored into that aspect of things, too. Two serious offers fell through, she said: one party couldn't get bank financing and the other couldn't meet a Small Business Administration requirement.

"It's a banking situation," Brooks said. "The banks got all this 'help money' from the government and they're not letting loose with a nickel of it."

Despite campaigns to encourage shoppers to buy locally, membership in the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce has dropped, from 375 to about 350, according to Susie Gorski, the chamber's executive director.

Uncertainties surrounding Southcentral's natural gas supplies and dropping volumes of oil from the North Slope have added to the retail- and service-industry woes here, Gorski said.

"We're obviously in better shape than the Lower 48," she said. "We have flat-lined though."



This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, March 10, 2011.