A car dealership that’s served Vernon for more than a century is now helping out a local institution with nearly as long a history.
Members of the Okanagan Screen Arts Society met at the Watkin Motors Ford dealership Thursday (April 15) to receive a $1,500 cheque towards their efforts to revamp, and eventually operate, the Vernon Towne Cinema.
Founded in 1929, the historic theatre has its hands tied by the COVID-19 pandemic. Public health orders have forced the cinema into a prolonged closure, and a fundraising campaign was launched to keep the downtown gem alive through the down-time.
Operators of the theatre haven’t been using the down-time idly. Last December, owner Gerry Sellars was busy at work alongside Screen Arts Society volunteers, ripping out 1940s-era chairs in the auditorium to be replaced by more modern seating.
The Screen Arts Society will take over operations at the cinema at the end of July, but before any major changes are made, they’re using the current period of closure to corral as much funding as possible for the day they can return to action. Those funds can then be doubled be matching grants.
Screen Arts volunteer Donna Clancy said the society has raised about $52,000 through online fundraising campaigns to date, and another $52,000 in grants.
“We’re thrilled with the community support,” Clancy said. “We have a lot of work to do to make (the cinema) accessible but that’s going to happen over a period of time.”
The plan is to improve access to the theatre by adding a wheelchair ramp, power doors, bathroom renovations and other layout adjustments. The renovations would likely take place early next year, said Screen Arts board member Susan Hodgson, with a six to eight-week closure in the winter.
As for when the doors will open again, she said the society is still in wait-and-see mode.
“We just have to see what happens with the health orders, and realistically if we can still only have 50 people we might hold off a couple of months.”
Another part of their efforts will tap into the cinema’s rich history. As Hodgson explained, the original 1929 cinema was primarily a dance hall, and the Screen Arts Society plans to build a stage in front of the theatre’s 400-plus seats to re-introduce live music and other performance opportunities at the venue.
For the management team at Watkin Motors Ford, supporting the Towne Cinema was a natural way for the 106-year-old dealership to continue its long history of service in Vernon, while helping to preserve one of few local institutions that was around when the dealership was in business in the 1920s.
“It’s a big one for the dealership,” said general sales manager Luke Hornhardt about supporting Society. “We’re a huge community-based organization, we support as much as we can, as many people as we can, and this is a big part of the Watkin Motors history.”
Watkin Motors Ford also recently rejoined the parent company’s “diamond club,” as a recipient of Ford Canada’s 2020 President’s Award. Announced April 12, it’s now the 15th time the Vernon dealership has won the award for superior customer service.
“In our way of doing business, we look at long term benefits to our employees and customers,” said Ross Blankley, dealer principal at Watkin Motors. “We believe this thought process helps us meet or exceed the expectations of people that work with us or purchase services from us.”
For more information or to offer support, visit the Okanagan Screen Arts website at osa-vernon.org.