Despite a national decline in the once pervasive outdoor movie theater, an Eldersburg man is seeking permission to turn a hilly plot of land in Carroll County into the nation's first digital drive-in, a proposal that has angered some neighboring property owners.
The proposed theater, which would be called Bumpers Drive-In Theatre and would have two screens, is believed to be the first effort to construct a drive-in in Maryland in decades, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. Only two drive-ins operate in the Baltimore area. Nationally, the number of drive-in theaters has dropped to about 425 from a peak of about 5,000 in the 1950s, the association said.
Bumpers, according to plans by developer Alan Ackerman, would have a playground, an arcade and two concession stands on a barren 37-acre hill on Liberty Road in Eldersburg. One theater would have space for 805 cars, and the other would accommodate 295 cars and show classic 35-millimeter films such as Gone With the Wind and Rebel Without a Cause.
In addition, Ackerman plans a digital drive-in. "We'll be able to take a digital signal -- from, say, the Internet, a satellite or a hard drive -- and put it on the screen," said Ackerman, 34.
A handful of companies are working to devise a way to deliver movies to theaters across the country with the push of a button or the click of a mouse. Film is cumbersome and costly to ship.
Bumpers would be the first drive-in equipped with the technology to handle the digital format, according to Jon Walker, president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association in Montgomery County. The group has about 150 active members.
Young parents are rediscovering the drive-in, and many of the nation's drive-ins are enjoying a rebirth, Walker said. The Bel Air Drive-In in Churchville in Harford County is still going strong and Bengies Drive-In in Baltimore County recently scrapped plans to close after a swell of community support, according to the association.
The Churchville drive-in, on Route 155 between Bel Air and Aberdeen, advertises on the Internet that it has been in business almost 50 years. Bengies' Internet site claims the theater has the largest outdoor screen on the East Coast, at 52 feet by 120 feet. Both charge admissions that are slightly lower than indoor theaters, with the most expensive ticket set at $7. Owners of the two drive-ins could not be reached to comment.
"I remember piling into the car with a cup of popcorn and heading to the drive-in in my fuzzy blue pajamas, the ones I called my pat-pats because they had built-in feet and made a funny sound when I walked," said Debi Betances, 33, who grew up in Beltsville. She and her husband, Paul, are building a home in Eldersburg, where they plan to raise their two children, Christopher, 5, and Shaelyn, 2.
"We would play in the playground until the show started, always a cartoon and a double feature," Debi Betances said. "Our family really enjoyed those times together. Inevitably, one of us would fall asleep in the back seat. They're the kind of memories I want my own children to have."
The Beltsville drive-in of Betances' youth was torn down in 1990, shortly after her father commissioned a picture of it. The pen-and-ink sketch hangs in his office at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Ackerman will outline his plan at 1:30 p.m. today, during a Carroll Board of Zoning Appeals hearing at the County Office Building in Westminster. Walker, who has owned and operated the Cinema 67 Drive-In for the past 30 years in Spencer, Ind., plans to attend the hearing to testify on Ackerman's behalf.
Several adjoining property owners, who fear the theater will attract unsupervised teen-agers and create noise and light pollution, will also be there. "It is very unrealistic to think that a 3,000-square-foot arcade and stage are not going to have an adverse effect on hundreds of homes within a half-mile," Jim and Jen Neuser, residents of Sussex Court, near where the drive-in would be, wrote in a short letter to the zoning board.
The three-member panel has received about 30 letters protesting the project.
"This is among the most bone-headed ideas I've seen pitched in a while," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens Council, a community group that serves as a liaison between Carroll officials and residents of South Carroll.
"The sad part is ... this tract might otherwise be used to attract a real business that could bring high-paying jobs," Dangel said. "By increasing low-paying jobs, we only serve to clog our roads and suck up our natural resources."
Despite the neighbors' concerns, Jack Lyburn, Carroll County's economic development director, favors the $5 million project. "I think the project will be good for Carroll County," Lyburn said. "It will generate over $300,000 a year in entertainment tax." The revenue would flow into county coffers from ticket and concession sales and rental fees.
"Most drive-ins are family oriented and locally owned," said Randy Loy, executive director of the theater owners association. "They're nice places to take the whole family. The charm of the drive-in in 2001 is the same as it was in 1941 -- a chance to watch movies under the stars, get away from the cares of the day and enjoy some time together."
Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.