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Western Massachusetts Success Story: Resurrecting a Historic Community Cinema with SBA’s Network of Resources

agawam

In this picture with current owner Kim Wheeler in the middle, are the daughters of the former Jerry Lewis Theater: Shari Baker (L) and Patrice Goldman (R).
 

Jerry Lewis Cinemas were at its height of popularity in the 1970s – offering franchisees the opportunity of theatre ownership with the brand recognition of America’s favorite comedian.

This franchise concept spawned over 200 Jerry Lewis Cinemas all across the country, which in the end, turned out to be a failing business model that ended up in bankruptcy for the parent company, as well as many of the franchisees who owned the theatres.

Today, Agawam Cinemas is one of the few remaining Jerry Lewis Cinemas left with that legacy.  In May of 2014, doors closed due to a roof leak, causing water damage and led to a condemned building.  Luckily for this local cinema, it was a place where families gathered and residents had formed an emotional attachment to.  People like Kimberly Wheeler -- born and raised in Agawam, Massachusetts who spent countless hours at the theatre, became a film enthusiast and passionate about preserving its purpose in a small community. 

When the cinema was under consideration as a retail space in 2014, Kim had been working as an EMT instructor for years – but recognized the special opportunity presented to her.  At first, Kim admitted that she didn’t know the first thing about running a theatre, much less a business. But what she did know was that she had her local Small Business Administration resources at her disposal to help her every step of this new and exciting journey.

To get her feet wet, Kim attended workshops offered by the Western Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, and she worked closely with retired Dianne Doherty, Regional Director of the SBDC, who counseled her in the initial stages to give her the confidence she needed to believe in the resurrection project.  She also worked closely with SCORE Mentor, Tom Toman – who helped guide her with the development of her business plan. As she progressed through the planning process, envisioning the improvements that needed to be made in order to reinvigorate a following again -- she knew that investments and capital access was what she needed next.  

Kim turned to Oreste Varela, SBA Springfield Branch Manager to explore SBA lending options and to shop around for the best deals offered by approved lenders.  She eventually landed with Easthampton Savings, which embraced her business plan and believed in her dreams. The loan covered the cost of the new state-of-the-art digital projectors, but so much more had to be done.  

A crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter.com was launched and helped raise $40,000!  This extra capital infusion was essential for helping pay for much-needed upgrades to the interior of the theatre.  Kim’s enthusiasm and creativity as a new entrepreneur were also instrumental in the transformation of the property. She had to work with the building owner to bring the theatre up to code, knowing that the theatre was an “anchor tenant” that would attract more customers.

On November 6th 2015, Agawam Cinemas was re-open for business!  Starting with just four employees and a few volunteer family members -- she now employees about ten people from her community. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released during Christmas and lines were formed out the door for all of the sold out shows!  Support from the local community showed in numbers -- from November 2015 to January of 2017, several thousands of movie-goers had purchased tickets at Agawam Cinemas.  In response to the outpouring of support, Kim has committed herself to giving back to the community by supporting various causes, such as the local high school band, fighting cancer and various other charities.