By Joshua Schuetz
The 2020s have been a challenging decade for cinema: the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of online streaming have dealt theaters a one-two punch from which many have not recovered, especially single-screen theaters in small communities.
CEDA team member Courtney Bergey Swanson, who serves as Spring Grove’s EDA director, and a group of community members from Spring Grove received $25,000 in funding from the Department of Public Transformation, a nonprofit headquartered in Granite Falls, MN, to help sustain the city’s local movie theater and create new ways to use the space in service of the community.
Spring Grove Cinema is now part of the inaugural cohort of the nonprofit’s Activate Rural Program, which funds projects that rehabilitate amenities in small cities to better serve their communities.
“It’s a unique project because the Spring Grove Cinema is owned by our local telecommunications cooperative,” Bergey Swanson said. “A group of local leaders were thinking about ways to attract more families to town, and they encouraged Spring Grove Communications to invest in building a new movie theater downtown in 2009.” Unfortunately, with the changing times, not as many people are coming to the theater as they used to, and the cinema sits unused for much of the week, relying on its Friday, Saturday, and Sunday showings to make ends meet.
“What we proposed is that we believe there’s a way to use the cinema to activate the space more than a couple of nights per week,” Bergey Swanson said.
As part of the program, the Cinema is working on a partnership with the local school district to create a design lab on an unused upper floor of the building. This lab, Bergey Swanson explained, will give local students a chance to not only learn valuable design skills but also shape media in their community.
“The goal would be for students to work on programming that appeals to their generation, like gaming on the big screen, or TikTok film festivals, or retro cartoon Saturdays—things that are not super common in a regular theater,” Bergey Swanson said.
The grant consists of $25,000 in funding for programming over the course of two years. Spring Grove recently had its site visit for the cinema, as well as a retreat with other awardees, which gave Bergey Swanson and other members of the project’s core team the chance to share ideas with other grantees working on similar projects.
“Our next step this fall is to start some of the programming for the grant, where we will put things on paper, advertise them, and start getting people in the door,” Bergey Swanson said.