The race may soon be on to build a state-of-the-art movie theater in Hanford, with action last week to allow theaters to operate outside of the downtown area.

The Hanford City Council voted 3-2 Aug. 4 to approve an ordinance that changes a 13-year-old law that prohibits theaters in the “planned commercial” zone. The zone includes the Hanford Mall, shopping centers on 12th Avenue and the proposed Costco shopping center on East Lacey Boulevard.

The proposed ordinance would allow theaters in the planned commercial zone as part of a “mall,” which is defined as a large building or series of connected buildings with a variety of retail stores, restaurants and entertainment activities that serve a regional population.

Even with last week's vote, the ordinance must still return to the council for a second reading and final approval, most likely on Aug. 18.

Joanne Doerter, general manager for the Hanford Mall, was the only member of the public who spoke in favor of the change even though it would permit a competing theater to build elsewhere in the city. Doerter said that allowing the 23-year-old Cinemark Movies 8 theater to modernize or expand at its current mall location is worth the risk.

"The ordinance as it currently reads, does not help businesses move forward in an effort to compete in the marketplace."

Community Development Director Darlene Mata said the Cinemark theater was allowed when it was built in 1992. The city’s 2002 general plan update allowed indoor recreational uses in the planned commercial zone, but excluded theaters.

The 2002 plan made the mall theater a “legal nonconforming use,” meaning the facility can remain in business but is not allowed to expand or make extensive improvements. If the facility had to cease operations for longer than six months, it could not reopen as a theater.

Shelly Talbert, executive director of Main Street Hanford, asked the council to hold off on its decision until more is known about rumors of a developer looking to build a 12-screen theater in downtown.

 “Please do not overlook your historic downtown and the 350 small businesses within the heart of Hanford when making your decisions,” Talbert said.

Although the rumors have been circulating since May, Mata told the council Tuesday that the city has not received a proposal for a theater in downtown or any other part of the city.

Former mayor and councilman Dan Chin pointed to a map that had been placed on an easel at the front of the council chambers. The map showed Metro 4 Cinemas at its current location at Seventh and Harris streets expanding south to Sixth Street.

Chin said the map had been drawn by a local architect to show that the area could support a 40,000-sqare-foot, 12-screen theater facility with ample parking.

“There has been back-chatter coming out of the city that there is not enough room in downtown Hanford to support a 12-screen theater,” Chin said. “That shows you, taking the current theater, that there is.”

The city received an eight-page letter last Monday from Fresno attorney John P. Kinsey on behalf of M&B industries, which owns Metro 4 Cinemas. Kinsey’s letter says M&B industries has invested heavily in downtown properties over the past 35 years, including more than $500,000 of improvements made to the theater in 2007.

Kinsey’s letter further states that his clients have continued to operate the “marginally profitable” theater largely because of a commitment to downtown Hanford.

“If another theater is built or expanded within the areas designated Planned Commercial, such as the mall, M&B will no longer be able to operate the theater at a profit, which will result in the closure of the theater, and another empty building shell downtown,” Kinsey wrote.

The letter asked the council to delay its decision, asking for 10 years to allow downtown property owners to develop additional theater uses.

Councilman Justin Mendes, whose district includes the mall, emphasized at the meeting that changing the ordinance would not prevent a developer from building a theater downtown.

“Right now, the downtown theater has had a monopoly for 13 years,” Mendes said. “For 13 years, there's been nothing. This doesn't stop them from doing it. Just get your plans in.”

Mendes criticized the existing rules, pointing to the fact that the city has one theater that only makes a marginal profit and a second theater that can’t modernize its facility.

“So now we have two marginal theaters because of this ordinance,” Mendes said. “Meanwhile, Lemoore has a state-of-the-art stadium facility.”

Long-time Hanford resident and downtown advocate Jim Castleman said that the council’s current support for shopping centers on 12th Avenue and East Lacey Boulevard could be detrimental to the city’s “heart and soul.”

“You're going to kill your downtown,” Castleman said. “I just wish you could see that.”

Mayor Russ Curry and Vice Mayor David Ayers both said they would prefer to wait to see if the rumors are true.

"I don't see any big rush in making a change at this time," Ayers said.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2458 or Follow him on Twitter @MikeE_HS.