Penn Cinema co-founder hopes to open two-screen theater in downtown Lancaster

By on March 7, 2018

Penn Ketchum at Ephrata Main Theatre.

Five years ago, when cinema developer Penn Ketchum was asked if he’d consider opening a movie theater in downtown Lancaster, he had a two-word response:

“Absolutely not.”

Back then, Ketchum felt downtown was too close to his flagship location, Penn Cinema, across from Lancaster Airport, and to Regal Cinema on Millersville Pike.

But the dramatic, ongoing revitalization of downtown Lancaster — with tens of millions of dollars of new investment pouring in — has changed his mind.

Ketchum said Wednesday he’s looking for a site where he can open a two-screen cinema, with “as close to 100 seats as possible” in each auditorium, “gigantic screens” and “world-class amenities.”

The Lititz entrepreneur, who is managing partner and co-founder of Penn Cinema, hopes to lease 5,000 square feet where he can develop a $1 million “microplex.” It would open in 2019.

Ketchum declined to disclose which sites he’s considering.

He did say that downtown’s existing parking inventory would suffice for his customers. The theater would have two or three full-time employees and 10 or so part-timers.

Downtown drought

Downtown Lancaster has lacked a cinema that shows mainstream movies since the four-screen Pacific East theater closed in 2000, ending a 31-year run.

The 233-237 N. Queen St. building was razed two years later for the Red Rose Transit Authority bus terminal.

The Pacific East’s demise followed the closing of the two-screen, 895-seat Eric Theater a block south on Lancaster Square in 1995 after 25 years of operation.

Ketchum believes a downtown Lancaster “microplex” would be more than “a smart business decision.”

“On a personal level, it’s really exciting. I would be thrilled to be part of that scene. I think it would be fun. I think it would be really really fun,” he said.

Jonathan Byler, a partner and co-founder of Penn Cinema, agreed. The forward momentum of center-city “is something we’d love to be a part of. … We think it would be a neat thing to do.”

History of growth

Ketchum and three partners opened Penn Cinema on Airport Road in Manheim Township in 2006. Started as a 10-screen multiplex, it now has 14 screens plus an IMAX theater.

In 2012, the team opened Penn Cinema Riverfront in Wilmington, Delaware. It too features 14 screens plus an IMAX theater.

This week, Penn Cinema announced plans for two seven-screen multiplexes in Montgomery County. A Huntingdon Valley site will open in November; an Abington site will open in 2019.

Outside Penn Cinema, Ketchum and his wife Aimee last year took over the ailing Ephrata Main Theatre and revived it as The New Main.

Once tried in York

The scale and flavor of the downtown Lancaster microplex resemble a 2013 plan that Ketchum had for downtown York, also done outside the Penn Cinema portfolio.

The two-screen, 500-seat plan fell through a year later after the prospective landlord dropped out.

Byler said the downtown venture would “most likely” be done as a Penn Cinema project.

But whatever the ownership structure, Ketchum is confident the downtown market — with idle buildings being converted into housing, hotels expanding, a busy convention center and numerous destinations for dining and the arts — is ripe for a first-run, mainstream movie theater.

“I think there’s an opportunity in downtown Lancaster,” he said.

Tim Mekeel is a business reporter. He can be reached at tmekeel@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6030. You can also follow @TimMekeelLNP on Twitter.

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