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Movie theater planned for old Bally Total Fitness in Downtown Pittsburgh

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The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust wants to build a movie theater inside the former Bally Total Fitness building on Sixth Street, near the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel.

A theater could be showing mainstream movies in Pittsburgh’s Downtown in as little as two years if everything goes according to plan, said Pittsburgh Cultural Trust director Kevin McMahon.

But that’s a best-case scenario.

“I am an optimist by nature, but at the earliest, two years from now,” McMahon said. “More likely two-and-a-half or three from now.”

The trust received another $1 million from the state this month toward the estimated $11 million to $12 million cost of the theater, which the organization plans to build inside the former Bally Total Fitness building on Sixth Street, near the Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel.

The building can accommodate up to six screens seating about 100 people per screen, McMahon said. The Trust has owned the building, which originally housed a theater in the 1890s, for about eight years, McMahon said.

The organization plans to start demolition work inside the building – clearing out space that now holds a basketball court, swimming pool paddle-ball courts, a dance facility, indoor track and locker rooms, he said. But it won’t move forward on construction until it secures about another $3 million in private donations toward the project, he said.

The state gave the Trust a $750,000 grant before awarding the recent $1 million grant. Private donors have pledged about $6.4 million toward the project, which McMahon said will boost the downtown economy by attracting new visitors.

The theater would play first-run films, complementing what the Trust-owned Harris Theater on Liberty Avenue plays.

“Having the ability to supplement those international films and what would be called art-cinema films with what would be called first-run films is a natural extension of our very diverse program mix,” McMahon said.

Just as the Trust partners with Pittsburgh Filmmakers for day-to-day Harris Theater operations, the nonprofit is looking for a partner to run the new theater.

McMahon said potential operators include Rick Stern, owner of the Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill, and New York-based Bow Tie Cinemas. He said the Trust doesn’t have a definitive arrangement with any operator yet, and that details of the theater will depend on who partners with the Trust.

He ruled out speculation that Landmark Theatres, owned by Mt. Lebanon native and investor Mark Cuban, might be interested in partnering with the Trust for the project.

“They don’t do this. We’re a very small, localized operator,” he said.

Downtown Pittsburgh hasn’t had a first-run movie theater since 1987, when the Fulton Mini closed, the Trust said in its grant application. Research shows that the approximately 14,000 people who live downtown and the 110,000 people who work there would like to see a movie theater added, according to the application.

“Increasingly, it seems that many people are looking for spontaneous forms of entertainment and perhaps lower-cost forms of entertainment,” McMahon said, adding that the Trust plans to maintain its live theater and other offerings Downtown.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Wes at 412-380-5676, [email protected] or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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