CLEARWATER — It has always been a little embarrassing. Even though it's the third-largest city in the Tampa Bay area, Clearwater hasn't had a first-run movie multiplex for nearly a decade.
That will change three weeks from now. The new movie theater at Westfield Countryside mall was originally slated to open in the spring of 2012. But now it's opening on Dec. 16, in time for the Christmas rush.
That way, the Cobb Countryside 12 gets to kick off its opening weekend with holiday blockbuster sequels like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Yes, there's even a sequel for the kids, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chip Wrecked.
The 12-screen theater is on the second floor of a 70,000-square-foot addition built at the mall's southwest corner. Two new restaurants — Grimaldi's Pizzeria and BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse — will go in the ground floor of the new wing. The mall says there's room for up to three more restaurants in that space.
The state-of-the-art movieplex will be competing for butts-in-seats with places like the Woodlands Square 20 in Oldsmar. It was the splashy Woodlands cineplex, with its stadium seating and high-quality sound, that made Clearwater's old movie theaters obsolete. The AMC theaters at Countryside Mall and the old Clearwater Mall went dark in 2000, and then a small United Artists theater on U.S. 19 closed in 2002.
Since then, people in Clearwater have been going to the movies in Oldsmar or Palm Harbor or Largo or even Tampa. When plans for the new Countryside theater were announced last year, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard said the news was long overdue: "We did a movie theater study, and there's a gaping hole in Pinellas County, right over Clearwater."
This is Cobb Theatres' first foray into Pinellas County. The Alabama-based company operates the Grove 16 Theatre off Interstate 75 and State Road 54 in Wesley Chapel. Cobb says the Countryside multiplex will incorporate the latest amenities:
• Twelve theaters with more than 2,000 seats.
• Stadium seating with 18-inch risers and 4-foot row spacing.
• Digital projection with 3-D capabilities.
• Extra-wide rocking chair seating with high backs and tilt-up cup holder armrests.
• Closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
• Also, 42 seats in one auditorium are electronic D-Box seats outfitted with vibrating pads and a hydraulic system underneath, all of it programmed to synchronize with the movie action onscreen. Those seats will cost extra. (At Muvico Starlite 20 in New Tampa, D-Box seats add $8 to the base ticket price, and $3 more if the movie is in 3-D.)
Around the time the movie theater opens, the first of several new restaurants will be making its debut downstairs:
• Grimaldi's Pizzeria, descended from a century-old coal-fired pizza restaurant in Brooklyn, opens at Countryside in mid-December. The 147-seat restaurant is the 22nd in a chain that cooks in an open-flame, 25-ton brick oven that consumes 100 pounds of cleaner-burning anthracite coal a day. That generates an intense 1,200-degree heat said to create crispier crust pizza and calzones.
• BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse opens in March. It's a chain of spacious restaurants that tout a 100-item menu and serve handcrafted beers. There's one of these in the Shoppes at Park Place and another at Westfield Citrus Park mall.
• The mall is in talks with other eateries. "Depending on size, this project will include up to five restaurants," said Tara Martin, regional marketing director for Westfield.
Now that the holidays are here, it'll be interesting to see if the Countryside mall has enough parking spaces to comfortably handle its addition.
According to city records, the mall reconfigured its parking lot to add 99 spaces, for a total of 5,719 spaces. But the mall is also adding a 2,000-seat theater.
Mall officials are confident there will be enough parking. Mall spokeswoman Kelly Edwards said it's a good-sized parking lot, and the mall's entrances are spread throughout its perimeter, so shoppers are never parked too far from an entrance.
When Clearwater approved plans for the movie theater, city officials noted that there's a lot of parking near JCPenney and Sears that is rarely used.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151.