The Twin Cities is getting a new drive-in movie theater, bucking a trend that has seen their numbers dwindle from more than three dozen to just one in the metro area.
The Elko New Market City Council has approved plans for a large outdoor movie theater at the Elko Speedway. Tom Ryan, president and owner of Elko Speedway, said Monday he’s hoping the theater will be open by Memorial Day.
Fittingly, when the films start rolling, they’ll be shown on the screen from the last metro drive-in to close, the Cottage View Drive-In in Cottage Grove. Ryan purchased the screen after it closed in 2012.
Ryan is planning on showing first-run, family-friendly films until early September. The movies would be shown on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights in the spring and fall and every night in the summer, he said. On Saturday nights, the only night the racetrack operates, the films would begin after the final race, he said.
Ryan said he considers an outdoor theater “a natural fit” to the seasonal business at the racetrack.
“We have the room out there, and we think it’s a good business,” Ryan said. “Lots of people have very good memories of going to drive-in theaters when they were kids growing up.”
Elko New Market is located at the southern edge of Scott County, about 30 miles south of Minneapolis off Interstate 35.
Cottage View’s owners cited the expensive upgrade to a digital movie projector as the main reason for closing, a decision that left the Vali-Hi Drive-In in Lake Elmo the lone survivor in the metro. The film industry last year completed its switch to digital distribution, making it all but impossible for theaters with old film projectors to operate. Digital projectors cost $70,000 to $80,000.
The Cottage View became the site of a retail center anchored by a Wal-Mart that is expected to open this spring.
Ryan said his new theater will have a digital projector and will use the 116-foot-wide and 46-foot-tall screen that he purchased last year from operators of the Cottage View. The plans also call for a projection building that Ryan said could be expanded to include restrooms and a concession area.
The theater will be south of the racetrack and west of a baseball field on a site large enough for 713 vehicles. That’s similar in size to the Vali Hi, which can fit about 800 cars.
Four other drive-ins remain in the state: the Starlite 5 Drive-In in Litchfield, the Long Drive-In in Long Prairie, the Verne Drive-In in Luverne and the Sky-Vu Drive-In in Warren.
In addition to digital conversion, urban sprawl and changing consumer habits have helped speed the demise of the drive-in industry. There are about 350 drive-in theaters left across the United States.