Plans for retail development in Cottage Grove could mean the end for one of Minnesota's last drive-in theaters.
Cars full of families arrive at the Cottage View Drive-in at dusk, rumbling past a quaint blue and white chalet where they pay $7.50 a head, 12 and older, to enjoy a rare and disappearing outdoor experience.
"No alcohol, no grilling, no racing, be nice," warns a sign in the window of the ticket booth, but there's little cause for worry. This weekend's movie offerings at the Cottage Grove theater are "Mr. Bean's Holiday" and "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."
A more apt title might be, "Nostalgia Meets Suburbia," because like so many other drive-ins before it that closed as development charged into the suburbs, the Cottage View's days might be numbered.
A developer's proposal for a 500,000-square-foot shopping district -- the Cottage View would disappear while a Wal-Mart and other stores might rise in its place -- has touched off a furious debate in Cottage Grove.
The Cottage View's big screen may go dark for good at the end of the season, although even the owner doesn't know for sure.
"It just makes everybody sick," Mayor Sandy Shiely said of the drive-in's probable disappearance.
The Cottage View is one of six drive-in theaters remaining in Minnesota.
But Shiely and developer Jim Lockhart also say that the proposal is preliminary to the point that it hasn't even had a formal hearing by the city.
That hasn't stopped many residents from concluding that the development is a done deal and that the Cottage View's demise is a foregone conclusion.
"Part of what you have going on here is that people think that the city is trying to put this landmark, which we all value, out of business in order to bring in a retail development -- and that is just not true," Shiely said.
Lockhart, who is managing partner of PariPassu Cos., a Minneapolis real estate development firm, said that he's not in the business of wrecking drive-ins -- or the memories people have of them. He points out that owner Gerry Herringer already made the decision to sell the land.
"I remember going to drive-ins. I loved them," Lockhart said. "We really respect the drive-in and what it's meant to Cottage Grove."
The early nature of the development proposal hasn't discouraged spirited commentary on the website of the South Washington County Bulletin, where the newspaper's readers had posted 142 messages by Friday. Many of them supposed that Wal-Mart was coming to Cottage Grove, a Washington County city of about 34,000 people, at the expense of the drive-in theater. Some railed against Wal-Mart, others defended it. And the suggestion of a new regional shopping complex led to broader arguments about what's good -- or bad -- for Cottage Grove.
"It's something people really want to talk about," said Patty Drey, the Bulletin's editor.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart's spokeswoman in Minnesota, Julie Idelkope, said that it's too soon to know whether the company would build in Cottage Grove. "It's very fair and accurate to say that we've had conversations with the developer, but at this point it's extremely premature," she said this week.
Wal-Mart has 36 supercenters, 24 service centers, and 13 Sam's Clubs in Minnesota. Idelkope said the company continues to scout for new locations.
Meanwhile, the once-robust era of the drive-in theater is nearly dead. Only two remain in the Twin Cities metro area -- the other being in Lake Elmo -- because the modest profits that drive-in theaters earn can't compensate for rising property taxes on what has become prime suburban land.
"I'm sorry, it was a great run while it lasted, but the world turns," said Herringer, who built the Cottage View in 1966. He said it became a "modestly effective operation" in what was once a rural location, but said that smaller cars and daylight saving time made the drive-in less of a destination.
He said that he's been trying for several years to sell the 94-acre drive-in, which Mann Theatres Inc. now leases.
Further economic development is crucial because Cottage Grove loses too many shopping dollars to nearby Woodbury, said Ryan Schroeder, executive director of the city's Economic Development Authority. He said that the 4,000-acre East Ravine district -- which includes the Cottage View land -- is the last significant parcel of commercial land available near Hwy. 61.
Cottage Grove has no traditional downtown -- and no other movie theater besides the Cottage View.
Barb Stofferahn, who with her family has managed the Cottage View since 1973, said the 850-car drive-in filled up several times this summer because people assumed it would close for good when the season ends in October.
"The land is too valuable to put a movie theater on it," said Stofferahn, who started working in the ticket office when she was 16.
While the wooded entrance to the Cottage View looks rural and summons feelings of nostalgia, the view from where cars park for movies is much different. New houses rim a bare hillside behind the big screen, suggesting the march of time.
PariPassu presented its Cottage View Plaza concept during a brief informational session with the City Council a few weeks ago, said Shiely, who said she has pushed for more retail development in the past but hasn't taken a position on this proposal. PariPassu holds an option to buy the land, meaning that the company paid a fee to exclusively explore development potential, Herringer said, but he declined to say whether the Cottage View would open next spring if PariPassu decides not to build.
However, he said he understands why people worry about the loss of drive-in theaters: "They can harken back in our thoughts to a simpler time when we were all much younger, bring a jug of Kool-Aid, pop your own corn, let the kids run around and play on the swing set."
And watch an outdoor movie on a starlit Minnesota night.
Kevin Giles 651-298-1554