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Cottage Grove Walmart a go; Cottage View Drive-In to go

An illustration of the Walmart Supercenter the discount retailer will build in Cottage Grove. The City Council on Wednesday approved the plans. Submitted by pb2 architecture

In the end, new retail trumped nostalgia.

After 47 seasons, the Cottage View Drive-In will close next month following the Cottage Grove City Council's approval of Walmart's plan to build a Supercenter store atop a portion of the venerable drive-in's property.

Walmart has agreed to purchase roughly 24 acres of the 52-acre Cottage View property held by drive-in owner Gerry Herringer's Apache Chief Theater Company after the council cleared the way for a 178,000-square-foot pharmacy, retail and grocery store to be built on East Point Douglas Road near County Highway 19.

City officials have heralded the store's arrival, saying it will spur retail growth in an important area of the city and increase property tax revenues by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But, the 5-0 decision, made at a Sept. 5 council meeting, means a certain end for a south Washington County summertime staple that has stood alongside Highway 61 in south Cottage Grove since it opened to moviegoers with the comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" in the summer of 1966.

"I look at this as a smaller piece, one piece of a bigger [development] plan for that area down there," Mayor Myron Bailey said following the vote. "This has been a long time coming."

Bailey and other city officials have asserted the store will help drive retail development in the area that surrounds the Cottage View -- known as the East Ravine -- that the city has long identified as its next zone for major commercial and residential growth. Bailey said planners envision the Walmart as part of a larger shopping area on the larger, 90-acre drive-in site.

The theater, open weekends-only after Labor Day, will close early next month; an exact date for the drive-in's closure was not immediately available. Bloomington-based Mann Theaters operates the Cottage View. Bailey and Herringer said the city will celebrate the Cottage View and its place in the city's history before its closure.

The discount retailer first submitted plans for a store to the city in March. The Planning Commission recommended approval of the plan late last month after its review was delayed multiple times while the city and company sought to answer questions about the proposed store's impact on nearby homes, surrounding roadways and storm water run-off issues.

"It's a pretty big development in a new area opening up for growth," said John Burbank, a senior city planner. "So, there was a lot to look at."

'Bittersweet' approval

For Herringer -- whose family business owned three drive-in theaters in the Twin Cities metro at one time but who has said the Cottage View is no longer economically viable -- the council's approval Wednesday was "bittersweet," he said.

Amidst escalating property taxes and mounting maintenance needs, Herringer has sought a buyer for the theater property for years. This season was likely the drive-in's last, anyway, he said, with the need to make the expensive transition to digital film projection looming.

Twice, developers had neared deals to transform the old drive-in site into a retail hub before backing away, the last a shopping center proposed in 2007 that fell apart as the nation's economic recession began to hit.

Herringer said he never expected the Cottage View to remain open as long as it did. But the theater persisted, living a tenuous year-to-year existence for much of the past decade despite encroaching suburban development, lurking retail developers and the demise of all but one other metro-area drive-in theater.

"I should be happy as a clam," Herringer said in an interview at Cottage Grove City Hall after the council voted to approve a zoning change and site plan, among other items that cleared the way for the city's first Walmart. "I'm reservedly happy. When you really design [the Cottage View Drive-In], and build it -- physically -- and nurture it and hang with it for 40-plus years through some difficult, lean times, you've got to have feelings.

"I'm sorry to all the attendees who have been so loyal," Herringer continued, "but the economics -- it takes a lot of work."