Shawnee council approves contribution of $250,000 in city funds for rehab of long-dormant Aztec Theater

A deal approved by the Shawnee City Council Monday could see the dormant Aztec Theater return to life. Photo by Jerry LaMartina.
A deal approved by the Shawnee City Council Monday could see the dormant Aztec Theater return to life. Photo by Jerry LaMartina.

By Jerry LaMartina

The dormant Aztec Theater in downtown Shawnee is on its way to a rebirth.

At its Monday night meeting, the Shawnee City Council approved a development agreement with Aztec Group LLC, which includes a contribution of $250,000 from the city’s economic development fund to help the developer renovate the building.

Ward 2 Councilman Mike Kemmling cast the lone dissenting vote. (Councilmembers Dan Pflumm and Jeff Vaught were absent).

The theater is at 11119 Johnson Drive, directly across Johnson Drive to the south from City Hall. It first opened in 1927 as the Mission Theater and ceased operations as a movie theater in 1975.

Brothers Jeff Calkins and Chris Calkins, and Bruce Young, are Aztec Group’s partners. Aztec Group will buy the building from its owner, Wade Williams, using a combination of private capital and a loan from Bank of the Midwest totaling $250,000. Williams had set an Oct. 2 deadline to close on the transaction.

Aztec Group also has a fundraising goal of $250,000, which makes the project’s total value $750,000. The developer is authorized to use the city’s $250,000 contribution only for restoration costs, not for buying the property.

Jeff Calkins, who also is owner and CEO of Calkins Electric Supply Co. Inc. in Shawnee, addressed the council at Monday’s meeting and called the Aztec Theater “something that’s part of our childhood, part of our growing up.”

“My brother was forced to take me to the theater by my mom,” he said. “I’m sure he could’ve spent his Saturday better … but it did mean the world to me. I was 7 or 8 years old at the time, but it made an impression. Never would I have imagined that it would turn around to this, where we would have the opportunity to give it back to the community.”

The city’s $250,000 contribution to the project comes with claw-back provisions stipulating that:

  • If the developer sells the theater within five years after the agreement is final, then it must repay the city’s $250,000, and the city would have the right of first refusal to buy the property and all related assets at 90 percent of the asking price.
  • If the theater ceases operations for any reason for more than six consecutive months within the first five years, then Aztec Group would be required to repay the city on the following schedule: $200,000 if the theater closed in the first year, $150,000 in the second year, $100,000 in the third year or $50,000 in the fourth year.
  • If the project isn’t completed within three years, then the developer must repay the money the city has reimbursed it for renovation.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Stephanie Meyer asked what would happen if Aztec Group were to file for bankruptcy. City Attorney Ellis Rainey said that, as an unsecured creditor, the city would “go to the bottom of the pile.”

Kemmling praised the developer for its approach and willingness to work with the city on the project, despite his vote against it.

“The mayor said earlier here that she thinks every member of the council wants the theater open, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that,” Kemmling said. “I think we all would love to see that thing open, one way or another. … I really like the fact that we have a bunch of local Shawnee businessmen trying to revitalize the downtown of Shawnee. It’s not some company from another city coming in that doesn’t know us.”

But, Kemmling said, he had a hard time getting behind the provision to inject the city’s money into the rehabilitation effort.

“The reservations I have on this project really have nothing to do with any of the specifics of the project,” he said. “It has to do more with the philosophical one. … What is the role of government? Is the role of government to give government funds to a private entity?”

Calkins responded.

“I do believe that it is the role of the government to decide what is best and what is not best, and that’s exactly what this is,” he said. “I would never have approached this project if I didn’t think the city was going to get something out of it. … Like (Ward 2 Councilman Eric Jenkins) said, you know: You want to overturn a blighted spot; you want something that’s entertainment; we want to have pedestrian traffic. It’s the perfect storm.”