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Motor-Vu backers clamor, but officials can’t halt potential redevelopment

By Tim Vandenack - | May 23, 2022

Deborah Wilber, Standard-Examiner

Coleman's Motor-Vu drive-in movie theater in Riverdale is pictured Wednesday, May 18, 2022.

RIVERDALE — News of the possible end of Coleman’s Motor-Vu Drive-In is prompting a huge outpouring of nostalgia, heartache and calls for action to keep the outdoor movie venue operating.

Todd Barrow, who grew up in Weber County and has been a regular at the Riverdale drive-in, launched an online petition to maintain Motor-Vu after news publicly emerged last week that a developer was mulling acquisition of the land where it sits to build a housing subdivision. As of Monday afternoon, it had garnered more than 21,000 signatures.

“I started the petition because I was sad to see that a longtime community icon where I had so many great memories was just closing with no notice,” Barrow, who actually lives in Brigham City, said in a message to the Standard-Examiner. “I wasn’t sure how much could be done, but I was hoping that someone who actually could do something about it would notice and take steps to preserve the drive-in, even if for only a little longer.”

Alas, any effort to maintain the Motor-Vu could be an uphill battle.

“The city has very little control over ‘saving it’ unless we were to buy it. Really no one does,” said Steve Brooks, the Riverdale city administrator. “Only the property owners control that, and if they decide that it is no longer worth their while to continue to operate it, then it is going to go away.”

Motor-Vu owners and reps from RD Development Holdings of Sandy, the would-be developer, haven’t publicly disclosed plans at the site, nor responded to Standard-Examiner queries. But Riverdale officials say RD is proposing to build single-family homes on the 20-acre site and the Riverdale City Council last February rezoned the land to allow for such development.

In a Facebook post last week, Motor-Vu said, without elaboration, that movies would no longer be shown at the drive-in, though a weekly swap meet would continue.

Riverdale Mayor Braden Mitchell said Monday that he spent much of the weekend responding to queries about Motor-Vu, among a dwindling number of drive-in theaters across the country. Many were from people who don’t live in Riverdale but apparently have fond memories of going to movies at the drive-in.

He emphasized that the city has had no role in plans at the Motor-Vu site and has limited say in what happens with the property since it’s privately owned.

“There seems to be a misconception that somehow the city is shutting down or asking the Motor-Vu to cease operations. This is not the case at all,” Mitchell said. He went on: “Certainly, we can’t force a family to continue running their business.”

The drive-in started operating in 1947 and Howard Coleman, who worked at the outdoor theater in the 1950s, bought it in 1979. Subsequent generations of Colemans have owned and operated it and it is a summer favorite for many, like Barrow and others who signed his petition.

“There are many of us that have fond memories of the drive-in and wish that it was not leaving,” Mitchell said. “The Colemans have decided that they would like to retire from running the drive-in and move on to another phase of their lives. The sale is a private property transaction.”

Brooks said the seeming turn of events underscores the ebb and flow of growth, development and economics.

“Unfortunately, this is how development happens, whether it be a fruit farm or a drive-in,” he said. “One family member works their whole life to build it and then they pass away. The kids, though valuing the efforts of their parents, have their own separate lives and don’t want to or can’t devote the time and effort that their parents once did to the farm or drive-in. Or maybe it is just not possible to run it any more because of changes in the market or return on profits.”

Indeed, Brooks isn’t surprised at the potential redevelopment and doesn’t begrudge the possible change. “Things go away and developments continue. With Utah’s lower-income housing needs, none of this is very surprising to those of us who work with this regularly,” he said.

Still, others like Barrow don’t take the notion of closing quietly or passively given the memories they have of watching movies at the locale over the years.

“I understand the Coleman brothers getting older and not wanting to run the place anymore, but why not sell it to someone else who would?” Barrow said. “Or why not wait and have one last summer to have a proper goodbye? This is part of their family’s legacy. Some things are more important than money.”

Details of the planned development have yet to publicly emerge, but Mitchell offered a few details.

“The homes that will be built will be compatible with and add value to the surrounding properties, and help with the severe housing shortage that we are facing throughout our state,” Mitchell said.

The Motor-Vu land sits at 5368 S. 1050 West in Riverdale, abutted by Interstate 84 on the east, 1050 West on the west and Schneiter’s Riverside golf course on the south.

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