Vernon Hills officials check progress on new theater

 
 
Updated 1/20/2015 8:02 AM
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  • Westfield Project manager Ronald Malnar leads the Vernon Hills village board on a hard hat tour of the AMC Theatre being built at Westfield Hawthorn shopping center Monday in Vernon Hills. The theater, which is scheduled to open later this year, is part of a $50 million makeover of the 1970s-era mall.

      Westfield Project manager Ronald Malnar leads the Vernon Hills village board on a hard hat tour of the AMC Theatre being built at Westfield Hawthorn shopping center Monday in Vernon Hills. The theater, which is scheduled to open later this year, is part of a $50 million makeover of the 1970s-era mall. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • The Vernon Hills village board tours theater No. 1 at the AMC Theatre being built at Westfield Hawthorn shopping center Monday in Vernon Hills. The theater, which is scheduled to open later this year, is part of a $50 million makeover.

      The Vernon Hills village board tours theater No. 1 at the AMC Theatre being built at Westfield Hawthorn shopping center Monday in Vernon Hills. The theater, which is scheduled to open later this year, is part of a $50 million makeover. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Coming attractions at Westfield Hawthorn shopping center in Vernon Hills feature a theater that promises moviegoers will be able to "feel" the on-screen action while seated in a den-worthy recliner.

Construction of the 12-screen AMC Theatre is ahead of schedule and the expected opening May 1 will coincide with "Avengers: Age of Ultron." But village officials on Monday got an advance look at what is the centerpiece of an ongoing $50 million investment in the 1970s-era shopping center. The theater is part of a new mall entrance on the northeast side of the center, between Sears and JCPenney, that includes room for two restaurants and other businesses.

For the time being, those spaces are hidden behind temporary walls painted a gloss white forming a corridor along a polished marble floor. The theater spaces, which vary in size but total 1,200 seats, have been built. Still to come are the reclining chairs fitted with subwoofers and other aspects of the "immersive" audio experience that is part of the AMC Prime experience.

"It's all digital, and there are lot of bells and whistles," Ronald Malnar, Westfield's project manager, said during a "hard hat" tour. "There's a lot of stuff that has to go in yet."

Mayor Roger Byrne and four of six village trustees came to see the work in progress and check on an investment that also has a hefty local buy-in. The upgrades are intended to rebrand the center as a destination for entertainment.

"Entertainment is very important to malls," said John Goodwin, Westfield's vice president of development.

Vernon Hills officials for years peppered Westfield to upgrade the aging 1.4 million square foot center. The village does not levy a local property tax and the mall is the cornerstone of the village's vast commercial sales tax base. A $110 million proposal was introduced by Westfield in 2005, but it didn't materialize.

Construction on a scaled down plan began in the summer of 2013 and is nearing completion. Besides the theater entrance, the other three entrances have been redone with new lighting and signage. A Dave & Buster's arcade/restaurant opened last March. Smashburger and Maggiano's Little Italy restaurants also have opened and the food court at the mall was rebuilt and expanded.

The AMC project is estimated by the village as having a value of $15 million.

The improvements did not come without local help. Village officials in June 2013 approved a 10-year sales tax rebate agreement with Westfield. When all is said and done, the company will receive $12.9 million. Sales tax from the four main anchor stores is not included as part of the pact because they are not owned by Westfield.

"It's a big investment we made but all things considered, I think it will pay for itself," said Trustee Jim Schultz.

The deal will put an estimated $1.2 million annual dent in the village's sales tax revenue. Last summer the board agreed to raise the village sales tax rate by a quarter percent to offset the payment. That new amount, which took effect Jan. 1, brings the in-town sales tax rate on to items besides drugs and food consumed off premises to 7.25 percent.

Still to be finalized is a signage package that is scheduled to be discussed Tuesday night by the village board. Westfield is seeking several variations to village codes, including nearly 40-foot high signs with large electronic display panels at the Milwaukee Avenue and Route 60 entrances. As outlined, advertising on the signs would be limited to products or services offered at the mall, but advertising for off-site interests would be prohibited.

@dhmickzawislak

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