CLEARWATER — It's a little embarrassing. Even though it's the third-largest city in Tampa Bay, Clearwater hasn't had a first-run movie multiplex for nearly a decade.
The AMC theaters at Westfield Countryside Mall and the old Clearwater Mall went dark in 2000. Then a small United Artists theater on U.S. 19 closed in 2002. So people in Clearwater have to drive to Oldsmar or Safety Harbor or even Tampa to go to the movies.
Now, finally, the movies are coming back. Countryside Mall and Cobb Theatres are announcing plans to open a state-of-the-art, 12-screen cineplex.
Pending city approval, Cobb Countryside 12 is slated to open in spring 2012. It will require expanding the southwest corner of the mall, near Sears.
"Our hope is to begin construction in the first part of 2011," said Tara Martin, regional marketing director for Westfield. "We'll reconfigure the existing parking lot to maintain the current parking ratio."
Company officials say the multiplex will incorporate the latest technology and amenities, including:
• Twelve theaters with more than 2,000 seats.
• Stadium seating with 18-inch risers and four-foot row spacing.
• Digital projection with 3D capabilities.
• Extra-wide rocking chair seating with high backs and tilt-up cup holder armrests.
• Closed captioning for the hearing impaired.
"This is outstanding. Anytime you have this kind of investment in our community, we're excited about it," said Bob Clifford, president of the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We hated to see our residents head to Oldsmar or other places to go to first-run movies."
Clearwater does have an existing movie theater — the 30-year-old Clearwater Cinema Cafe on U.S. 19 and Sunset Point Road. It even shows first-run movies these days. But instead of a traditional movie theater, its two screening rooms have circular tables surrounded by desk chairs.
Clearwater's older movie complexes became obsolete when AMC opened the splashy Woodlands Square 20, a megaplex in Oldsmar with stadium seating and high-quality sound.
Meanwhile, Muvico operates a 10-screen cinema in Palm Harbor, and Largo has a couple of eight-screen multiplexes.
"We've been long overdue to have one," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "We did a movie theater study, and there's a gaping hole in Pinellas County, right over Clearwater."
The city has unsuccessfully tried to lure a multiplex to its downtown.
"Urban movie theaters are pretty tough," the mayor said. "Movie theaters are parking-intensive."
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.
Countryside Mall is touting the upcoming movie theater, noting that it comes on the heels of a $12 million makeover of the mall last year. It is in talks with the city government about getting the rights for more signs on its property once the theater opens.
"The addition of Cobb Countryside 12, coming on the heels of our recent revitalization, underscores our commitment to continually reinvest in our centers," Martin said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.