Land sale could make West Chicago's drive-in fade to black
Once a mainstay of summer entertainment, the drive-in movie theater long has become a dying breed, and now it appears one of only two remaining in the suburbs may have shown its last film.
The lease that allowed the Cascade Drive-In in West Chicago to operate along North Avenue has expired, leaving owner Jeff Kohlberg uncertain of its future.
The theater has been here since 1961, offering double features rain or shine with the tagline "Movies Under the Stars." The Cascade and the McHenry Outdoor Theater have been the only drive-ins in the region for years as rising land values led others to be converted to more profitable uses.
To stay alive, the Cascade began showing digital films in 2013. It continued to draw large crowds with low ticket prices and the promise of a nostalgic atmosphere that blends the scents of an old-school concessions stand with the sounds of movie lines and songs emanating from pole-mounted speakers.
But the theater doesn't own the 28-acre site on which it sits, and the family that does is working to sell the land.
The Kuhn family owns the drive-in site and adjacent parcels totaling 53 acres, including a hot dog stand and the former headquarters of Harry Kuhn Construction. Stephen Kuhn said he has hired a new real estate broker to sell the site to a developer, ideally all in one piece.
Brokerage firm NAI Hiffman is "exploring all possibilities" for the land, Kuhn said. The theater's long-term lease expired Dec. 31, and Kuhn said his family hired the broker shortly thereafter. The land, however, has been for sale for at least nine years, making each summer of drive-in movies a precious one to loyal fans.
"We've been part of the community in that area since the 1970s, and we want what's best for West Chicago," Kuhn said. "We look forward to working with West Chicago to get something that is really great for the community going forward."
Kohlberg said he's reached out to the Kuhn family since his lease expired to try to negotiate a renewal. He said his attorney offered a plan under which the theater he has operated since 1989 would continue showing movies until the land sells and then vacate after a certain notification period.
But Kohlberg said he hasn't received a reply, which is causing concern. If the theater is to open for a new season April 5, maintenance and advance work would need to begin in mid-March.
"We're going to have to know pretty soon because we have to get prepared for the season," Kohlberg said.
It's been three years since the West Chicago development committee rejected a plan that would have razed the Cascade and replaced it with a truck terminal facility at the southeast corner of North Avenue and Prince Crossing Road.
When that proposal was turned down, West Chicago Mayor Ruben Pineda said the city wanted a commercial and retail development, not a heavy industrial use.
Last week, Pineda said the 2016 proposal would have brought "not just trucks - a large amount of trucks," so it drew instant neighbor opposition.
The city now hopes for a retail use along the North Avenue frontage, which could play a part in long-term plans to improve the corridor, with a light industrial use farther south.
"I want to make sure it's going to be a good project," Pineda said. "Something that's not going to impact our residents and we'd be proud to have."
David Haigh, executive vice president of NAI Hiffman, said his firm is marketing the land to office, retail and industrial developers. To accommodate a new use, Haigh said, the site will require some water, sewer and infrastructure work that could be costly for the buyer but could benefit the city. He said any project will need cooperation among the seller, buyer and municipality to "meet market demand."
"We're currently in the process of speaking with some developers," Haigh said. "We want to work with West Chicago to try to help find the best solution for the site."
Kohlberg said he's concerned the Cascade is no longer in Kuhn's plans, despite its popularity in West Chicago and far beyond.
"He thinks that if the theater is not there anymore, it's going to facilitate his ability to sell the land and get a proposal accepted by the city of West Chicago, which is totally a fallacy," Kohlberg said.
Pineda said the city isn't holding up plans for the site but will have review authority if the new owners want to build anything other than what the city terms "estate residential," which is the assigned zoning. West Chicago knows the drive-in is a draw because of its rarity.
Pineda, a native of the city he now leads, has his own childhood memories of the Cascade and said he wishes he could visit more often.
"People really do come out for that drive-in," he said. "People love it, to get that old-timey feeling again."
Kohlberg hasn't closed the Cascade and has continued paying utilities and maintaining equipment.
His last social media post came in November, once the theater had closed for the season. The warning that the future is unknown drew 90 comments, many conjuring up memories of childhood summers or weekend date nights and making inspired pleas to keep the theater in place.
"I'm still holding out hope," Kohlberg said. "If we don't open in April, it looks like it'll never open up at all."