McMinnville, OR—The Mack Theater, a shuttered icon in the heart of Historic Downtown McMinnville, is making steady progress toward a bright new future. Purchased in October of 2021 by Mactastic LLC—a group with deep local roots and a history of creating community-centric hospitality businesses—the historic theater and interconnected hotel have been the centerpieces of a yearlong study to determine how both buildings can be saved after decades of abandonment.
Partner Erin Stephenson, who is also Co-Owner of the Atticus Hotel, has led the charge, putting her full attention on the effort. “The Mack Theater is a cultural touchstone for our community—a place that’s always been about bringing people together through a shared experience, and we need that more than ever right now. Over the last year we’ve dedicated ourselves to pulling back the layers, gaining a better understanding of the challenges and the opportunities around saving both the Mack and the attached Hotel Yamhill. We’ve brought in engineers, architects, contractors, and consultants to evaluate the buildings, as well as consulting with historic theaters across the state to understand the financial realities of owning and operating a theater of this size, at this moment in history. We’re still in preliminary stages of this project, but we finally feel we have enough information to share our findings with the community.”
Originally opened by the Mattecheck brothers in 1941 as a 500-seat state-of-the-art luxury movie palace, by the late 1990s the Mack functioned as a second-run discount theater, before closing its doors in the early 2000s after maintenance costs outgrew revenue. Two decades later, the theater lacks electricity, heat, plumbing and a functioning sewer system. A river runs under the seats in heavy rain, and birds have left their mark throughout the once glamourous auditorium.
Upstairs in the 1886 hotel—which shares access through the theater lobby—the situation is much the same. Originally built as Cook’s Hotel, offering high end lodging for visitors to the bustling small town, the hotel existed under various names for more than 80 years. In 1971, as downtown McMinnville reached a low point in its lifecycle characterized by an exodus of businesses to Highway 99W, the three-story hotel went out of business. Now vacant and untouched for fifty years, the hotel sits in a state of graceful dilapidation. Lacking functional heat and plumbing, with limited light from a few old knob and tube fixtures, the hotel’s sole occupants for the last half century have been the animals who have called it home.
The condition of the buildings was known to the Mactastic team when they did their due diligence for the purchase. Undaunted, they believed that while the most economical choice might be to have them demolished, preservation and revitalization are always a viable option. Ultimately it comes down to finding the right use for the space and a long-term sustainable business model that supports that use. To do so, all options must be on the table.
To assess both the structural needs of the buildings and their associated costs, as well as define the viability of the various business models that would lend themselves to the spaces and best serve the community, Mactastic kicked off a yearlong feasibility study that encompassed all aspects of the revitalization of the buildings. Through the initial discovery process they created a business plan, had conceptual architectural plans drafted and had the project priced in the marketplace. Once pricing was complete, initial plans required substantial changes to find a sweet spot where their historic preservation efforts could both meet the needs of the community and be financially viable.
Stephenson commented, “We now have a preliminary understanding of what it will take to bring the Mack back. There are significant financial headwinds right now, in terms of both the high cost of construction and a spike in interest rates, which make an already delicate balancing act of priorities that much more challenging. Our goal from the outset of this project was to bring these buildings back to life in a way that lifts our community up, protects what we love and breathes new life into what we’ve lost. We believe we’ve found a path forward, but there’s still a lot of work in front of us to achieve it.”
Preliminary plans for the re-imagined Mack Theater complex would fully integrate the theater and hotel as an arts and culture destination with a variety of amenities for both community members and visitors to enjoy. A venue for live music and cult films, two onsite bars, and a Turkish bathhouse open to locals and guests, are all integral parts of the vision. To support the costs of the preservation of the two historic buildings, additional hotel rooms need to be added by reconstructing the adjacent Macy building to include rooms above the retail level. Existing businesses would be invited back to improved spaces throughout the buildings, including the ground floor of the Hotel Yamhill building, currently home to Thistle and Serendipity Ice Cream.
“As small business owners, we know how challenging major renovation projects can be for tenants,” Stephenson said. “We will work closely with both our architects and contractor to ensure that disruption is as limited as possible given the scope of this project.”
The theater, which will go from a 500-person capacity to 325 to accommodate code requirements for egress and bathrooms, would be restored to the glamour of its 1940s heyday. To create greater access for the community, the Mactastic team has worked with theater groups across the state to vet a concept that turns the traditional theater experience on its head. Unlike most theaters, which are only open to the public when a performance is happening, the Mack Theater would be open all day. Anchored by a beautiful bar, community members and guests would be able to enjoy the historic space for cocktails and lite bites. Current plans call for approximately 150 events a year, a mix of live music and movies, during which the theater would only be accessible to ticket holders.
Adjacent to the theater and hotel, a Turkish style bathhouse would be built on a currently unused tract of land on the property. Originally slated to be a patio with an additional bar, the team’s food & beverage consultant felt it would require more people to operate than the current workforce could supply. As plans continued to develop, a shift was made to a concept that would build out a beautiful, visually evocative bathhouse, featuring a soaking pool and a small bar. “We’re so excited about the bathhouse. It adds an element that doesn’t currently exist in our community and takes the deeply immersive experience we want to create to another level,” Stephenson commented.
To make the project flow financially, the Mactastic team realized quickly they must lean in. When initial pricing to renovate just the theater space came in at over $5.5 million—which consumed the majority of the initial project budget for the renovation of the two historic buildings—Stephenson said she and her team knew the only path forward would be to use McMinnville’s popularity as a destination to help fund the restoration of one of the community’s most important cultural assets. Research suggests that operationally, a theater of that size would break even at best. To cover the cost of the debt service on the theater renovation, more hotel rooms are needed. While the historical record shows that the Hotel Yamhill had as many as 51 rooms at one point, the need to add bathrooms decreases the room count significantly, putting the cashflow into the red. By adding rooms above the existing Macy building, the count can come up into the 60s—the minimum number required to support the renovation cost of the theater. After a detailed pricing exercise in the marketplace, the total project budget sits at $28 million, including the construction of 62 hotel rooms, the complete renovation of the theater and the addition of a bathhouse.
Stephenson commented, “If you pause to look at the post-COVID landscape in the world of travel and tourism, you’ll see that there has been a huge shift, refocusing the conversation on how tourism can best serve communities. Mirroring moves at the state level, Visit McMinnville’s newly adopted vision is to ‘cultivate the visitor economy to enhance quality of life for our community.’ This is an opportunity for our community to do just that: we can harness the power of McMinnville as a destination and make it work for us. In this instance, additional hotel rooms can be the engine that pays for the things we value—the Mack Theater—but eventually also out at Evergreen, where the addition of a hotel will help create financial stability for the museum.”
The hotel portion of the project would be positioned in the marketplace to land between McMenamins and the Atticus Hotel from a pricing standpoint. Described as ‘select-service approachable luxury’ the hotel would feature beautifully appointed rooms and an array of amenities but will not include labor intensive services, like concierge or bell service.
Stephenson remarked, “Our valley is experiencing a hospitality work force crisis, and our team doesn’t see that changing in the next few years. Every new hospitality business that opens stretches an already broken system further, pulling people from our existing small businesses and destabilizing them. To buffer against that situation, we’ve created a plan that treads lightly when it comes to the need for workers. We’ve also started promoting internally at the Atticus Hotel so we’re heavy on management and are creating leaders ready to move over to the Mack when we open, without negatively impacting other businesses.”
Planning for success, Stephenson suggested that it’s also imperative the city start a meaningful conversation on long term parking solutions for downtown McMinnville. The last time the theater was open, downtown McMinnville wasn’t the vibrant destination it is today. If the theater draws the numbers it will need to be financially sustainable, cars will be a part of the equation. “The last time the Mack Theater was drawing big crowds, downtown McMinnville was a very different place. We’ve all wanted the Mack back for so long and now that dream is moving toward reality. As such, we need to focus some attention on finding paths to increase the size of our current parking structure, and in combination with urban renewal dollars, long-term leases with downtown hotels could certainly be a part of the solution. We need to start working towards that now though.”
The current project timeline calls for the bulk of 2023 to be spent finalizing architectural plans and getting permits, with construction to kick off in early 2024 and finish in early 2025. The Mactastic team has been working closely with the State Historic Preservation Office, Business Oregon, the City of McMinnville, the Oregon Main Street Program, the McMinnville Downtown Association and other regional partners to find the right mix of funding options and partners to bring the project across the finish line.
“We’ve been waiting a long time as a community for the stars to align and make this possible. McMinnville is not the sort of place that looks around for outside saviors, or that lets things happen to us. This is the moment when we must collectively push all our chips into the middle of the table to support a thoughtful, community led revitalization effort. Our community has the passion, the creativity, and the determination to make this work. We’ve just got to dig deep and get it done,” Stephenson said.