Rumors of the Keno Drive-in’s demise have sparked a petition drive, a Facebook page, and an outpouring of regret, but little in the way of facts.
The Keno, 9102 Sheridan Road, has been operating since 1949. It opened for its 65th season this spring.
Word began to spread on Facebook Friday that this season would be the Keno’s last, and that a Walmart would soon go up in its place.
A “Save Keno Drive-in, No Walmart Here” Facebook page quickly drew 3,000 likes, and an online petition calling on Pleasant Prairie to reject the Walmart had more than 1,760 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
At Pleasant Prairie Village Hall, staffers were puzzled.
“We’ve been getting calls. Apparently something went on Facebook?” said Thomas Shircel, assistant village administrator. “I think there’s a lot of rumors going around.”
Jeff Rey, president of Cinema Management Corp., which has leased Keno for the past seven years, said he was told by the property owner last fall that this year would likely be the last for the drive-in.
He said he doesn’t know for sure what plans are for the property — the property owners have not told him — but he said there have been crews doing soil tests and other work.
“We’ll see what happens,” Rey said. “We’ve got to keep our fingers crossed, but it doesn’t look good.”
Shircel said that while he cannot comment on informal inquires about the property, he said there has been no paperwork filed by Walmart or any other development on the property.
“We have not received any formal application” for any development on the property, Shircel said.
He said the land is slated in the village’s comprehensive plan for commercial use, but said “the land is not zoned or planned for a big box user.”
Kenosha County records do not show any recent property sale. According to those records, the drive-in’s owner is Berwick Properties Inc., which is owned by developer and real estate investor Steve Mills. He has owned the property since 1996.
Mills could not be reached for comment.
A statement from Walmart said did not indicate plans for the property.
“While we don’t have any new projects to announce at this time, Walmart is always looking for opportunities to better serve our southeast Wisconsin customers,” a company spokesman said in an email.
“Right now what I’m doing is more cautionary,” said Shanon Molina, who launched the anti-Walmart petition drive.
Molina said there is “talk around town” that the drive-in property is one of several Walmart is looking to develop.
“For me personally, I live on 90th and Sheridan and obviously, I don’t want a Walmart on that corner.”
She said she also wants to block another Walmart development in the area, saying the company creates low-wage jobs and “is a proven local business killer.”
However Mills did indicate last fall that the drive-in’s days could be numbered.
Movie studios are phasing out film in favor of digital projection technology, and old-fashioned theaters like the Keno would have to replace their film equipment with more expensive digital.
Mills said last fall it was not clear if he would invest in the digital upgrade.
“The decision hasn’t been made at this point in time. Just by the very nature of a drive-in theater, the season is very short. With the circumstances, we’re still going to research on what it’s going to be,” Mills said then. “It’s a bridge we haven’t crossed as yet.”
Rey said he operates another drive-in in West Chicago, Ill. He said the company invested $100,000 installing digital projection equipment there, saying the new projector will go online at the end of the month.
“We could have worked out digital if that was their goal,” Rey said, although he said he believed about half the 366 drive-ins left in the country will likely go out of business this year because of the digital conversion costs.
Meanwhile, he said the drive-in will be open as usual this weekend, showing a double feature — the new Tom Cruise science fiction movie “Oblivion” and the comedy “Identity Thief.”
Despite rainy, cold weather this spring, business at the drive-in has been good, Rey said.
“I think people are wanting to get out there because this might be their last chance,” he said. “Unless something unexpected happens, it looks like it will be the end.”