Coming Soon to a Theater Near You: New Life Church

The selling of Atlantic’s movie theater to a local church sparks community outrage.


Atlas Atlantic Cinema

Atlas Atlantic Cinema’s Website shows an up-to-date picture of the movie theater. Soon, this building will be renovated into a church.

Dakota Oswalt, Lead Editor

A Kid’s Combo: popcorn with extra butter, M&M’s, and a fun-sized Sierra Mist fountain pop. That was my order every time I went to the local theater to watch the curtain rise on every “first.” My first Despicable Me movie, my first Marvel movie, and hundreds of other firsts to come. I had many positive memories in Atlantic’s theater, like the time my dad let me skip school in first grade so we could watch Finding Nemo 3D together, or the times we took class field trips to watch the latest releases. But the show won’t go on any longer, as the curtain will fall for the last time after the new year.

One thing that made Iowa communities prestigious in the 1800s were its opera houses. The Bacon Opera House was built by H.E. Bacon in the year 1880 and later became home to Atlantic Fridley Theatre, located at 28 West Fifth Street. The building saw many changes in ownership and management over the years. Eventually, Fridley Theatres wanted to expand their business to larger communities, so they sold Atlantic Fridley Theatre to family members Jacob Anderson, Rylea Anderson, and Ethan Anderson, who was already a manager. They took over on Nov. 1, 2019, and renamed the business Atlas Atlantic Cinema.

According to Around Atlantic’s Facebook page, the Bacon Opera House “was a building where people could go to see a famous theatrical or musical artist perform, see a talent show or the latest touring production.” (“Around Atlantic” on Facebook)

For the first four months, the new business ran smoothly, seeing a regular amount of moviegoers. The new owners installed comfortable new theater seating, added new menu items such as nachos and pickles, and created an app with updated showtime schedules. But on March 13, 2020, the President of the United States declared a National Emergency due to the urgent COVID-19 pandemic, and the movie theater was forced to close, along with thousands of other small businesses across the country.

The theater was closed for a few months, and during that time, the owners raised money for the local food bank by selling takeout concessions, helped with drive-in movies sponsored by the Atlantic Area Chamber of Commerce, and began to create gourmet popcorn flavors for people to enjoy. When they eventually reopened in early July, they got licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for their adult viewers and added beer and wine to their permanent menu. The business saw fewer moviegoers than usual, but they were doing well considering the world was still on lockdown and Hollywood was halting movie productions.

Later that year, however, the Atlas Atlantic Cinema announced another temporary shutdown. A post they made on Facebook said, “It’s a tough year, and we’re sad to close our doors again due to the pandemic-related movie shortages.” They launched a fundraiser to help them pay their bills during the closure called the “Save Our Cinema Campaign,” where they sold popcorn gift boxes and large bags of popcorn to anyone who ordered them. They even started renting out the theater for private showings. Businesses in Atlantic started selling the theater’s premade popcorn gift boxes in their stores to raise money and show support.

During the second closure, Atlas Atlantic Cinema publicly thanked Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, as well as Representatives Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer on their Facebook page for their respective roles in co-sponsoring and signing legislation that worked to prevent movie theaters across Iowa from shutting down during the pandemic. “This legislation will literally save [our] cinema and means so much to us and our entire community,” said the post. The theater also continued its drive-up concessions while they waited for major blockbusters to stop postponing their premiere dates.

This Year’s Holiday Popcorn Gift Sampler offers five different flavors of popcorn this year. Those flavors include Classic Cinema, Kettle Corn, Caramel Cheddar Explosion, Peppermint Bark, and Christmas Crack. The box costs 30 dollars. (Atlas Atlantic Cinema)

Atlas Atlantic Cinema reopened again in May 2021, promoting the hashtag, “TheBigScreenisBack,” and they started showing movies regularly again. They also gave back to the community by partnering with area libraries to encourage summer reading and sponsoring a Family Color Fun Run. The cinema began selling kettle corn and homemade lemonade at the town’s Produce in the Park every Thursday. They also sold at Atlantic Fest and other events around town. The theater also announced its first Dinner At The Movies event where adults could pay to eat a meal while watching a movie.

All seemed well at the Atlas Atlantic Cinema until earlier this November when the gossip started swirling around town about the building’s potential sale to New Life Church, who had been renting the theater on Sunday mornings to hold church service. After hearing about this, the Atlantic Area Chamber of Commerce and the Cass Atlantic Development Corporation combined their efforts and approached the theater, ready to help.

Bailey Smith, the Executive Director of the Atlantic Area Chamber of Commerce said, “There were rumors going around that the theater was going to sell to New Life Church, so we called a meeting with the theater owners. They did say that they were planning on selling to the Church [because] they have very busy lives. The financial burden of it had gotten too much so they were ready to sell.” The Chamber and CADCO asked the owners if they would consider selling the theater to them if they gathered enough money and found a buyer, and the owners said yes.

“Atlantic is filled with very generous people. A lot of them have spent their whole lives working and have done well for themselves, so they like to give their money back to Atlantic,” explained Smith. “So we called a meeting with a lot of those kinds of individuals that we know. Everybody agreed that we needed to keep the theater open,” she said. A couple in the community were wanting to purchase the business side of the theater but were not interested in taking on the full financial responsibility of owning the property.

Atlantic is filled with very generous people. A lot of them have spent their whole lives working and have done well for themselves, so they like to give their money back to Atlantic.

— Bailey Smith

Many community members wonder how much money the Chamber and CADCO offered the theater. While she was not able to disclose the information, Smith said, “It was more money than what the building and business was purchased for at the end of 2019. It would have been enough money to pay off the Anderson’s theater debt and give them a little left over.”

She said, “We had stipulations in there that the Church could still utilize the space as long as they wanted until they found a permanent home. We wanted it to be a win-win: the theater stays open and the church gets to keep worshipping at the theater. The church may feel like the Chamber doesn’t support them and that’s just not true as I told Pastor Ben [Winford].”

Smith is aware that the Church does a lot of outreach in Atlantic and “they do a lot of great programs for people in the community,” but there still is a problem with the location of the building. “The entire point of the downtown district is to generate revenue. That money is put into the city. When you have somebody purchasing property that will not contribute to that, it does have a negative economic impact on the community,” she said.

Smith said the theater is “a huge recruitment tool” that the Chamber and CADCO use to promote “new businesses and families” to come to the Atlantic area. “To lose something as monumental as a theater, it is very hard. We always move forward, there are great things coming up that we look forward to talking about soon.” 

While Smith was not ready to talk about future plans of the two entities creating a theater of their own, she did say, “The Chamber and CADCO always have a back-up plan, for a back-up plan, for a back-up plan. We are always exploring ways to enhance Atlantic.” Smith said, “I do wish the church well. They’ll continue doing great things. We just didn’t agree on where that should be, and that doesn’t mean the Chamber doesn’t support what they do.”

There was outrage from community members on a KJAN Facebook news article from Dec. 6 about the selling of the theater. Many people expressed concern about the theater selling to New Life Church, but some were in favor of the theater selling due to its apparent lack of success. Due to the sudden disapproval, a public hearing was held on Dec. 15, where the Atlantic Board of Adjustment unanimously voted to approve a conditional use permit for New Life Church where Atlas Atlantic Cinema currently sits.

There are several non-profit theaters in southwest Iowa that are greatly successful in towns even smaller than Atlantic. One of those theaters is the Dreamland Theatre in Carson, IA. The population of Atlantic is nearly nine times the population of Carson, the Atlas Atlantic Cinema is open daily while the Dreamland Theatre is only open on weekends, and the Atlas Atlantic Cinema offers two big screens compared to the singular screen at the Dreamland Theatre, yet, the Dreamland Theatre sees more weekly moviegoers than the Atlas Atlantic Cinema.

The Dreamland Theatre is located in Carson, IA, about 31 miles southwest of Atlantic. According to the 2021 census, Carson’s population is 765, while Atlantic’s population is 6,758. (“Dreamland Theatre” on Facebook)

This may be because the Dreamland Theatre is “operated as a non-profit organization by the Carson Iowa Business Club” according to its Facebook page. One way the theater makes money is through selling advertisement space to local businesses that they show before movie times. Because of this, the Dreamland Theatre has a low entry cost of just four dollars, which is about half the cost of a ticket at the Atlas Atlantic Cinema. The concessions at the Dreamland Theatre are also comparatively cheaper than those at Atlantic’s theater.

An employee of Atlas Atlantic Cinema who asked not to be named said their bosses have not told them of any official closing dates, and they have been told “very little” about the situation as a whole. “There’s so much still up in the air. I wish I was more informed about all of it. There’s not all that much anybody knows yet.”

The theater held a fundraiser a few months ago where they sold raffle tickets and prizes to help fund their new projectors, but the employee said the theater sold those new projectors. It is still unclear whether the participants in the fundraiser will get their money back or not, which is another concern community members expressed on KJAN’s Facebook post’s comment section.

Stefanie Gross, a member of the New Life Church, said the church “had obviously outgrown their building, but they made it work as long as they could until safety structural issues developed.” The church has been using the theater on Sunday mornings to hold services for the past two months and “there was such positive feedback.”

Gross also believes that the people of Atlantic should stop blaming the church for buying the building.“There should be absolutely no blame on the church. [The] theater had already made their decision to [sell]. New Life had an opportunity presented to them and they accepted.” She said that if there were anything to blame, it would be “streaming apps” and the lack of community support for the theater closure.

We have to continue to support the businesses that are still here. Atlantic always bounces back.

— Kelsey Beschorner

While many people in Atlantic have a lot to say about the issue, Smith suggests everyone should take a step back to recognize the change that’s happening. Chamber Program Director Kelsey Beschorner said, “Our town is very supportive. We do love our town and [there may] be some times where we feel everything is closing and everything is leaving but we also have a lot of great things still going on for Atlantic. [We] continue to move forward even though there are some times when we do see some sad things. We have to continue to support the businesses that are still here. Atlantic always bounces back.”

Pastor Benjamin Winford of New Life Church declined an interview at the time of this publication.

The owners of Atlas Atlantic Cinema have not responded to attempts at interviewing made by Dakota Oswalt.