ELORA – It looks like the Gorge Cinema has been saved.
And so has the building that houses it.
It will be many years before renovation to the historic building at 43 Mill St. W. in Elora will be complete – or even begun – but the new owner says it’s her intention to restore the exterior to its original state and have a small boutique hotel and the Gorge Cinema inside.
“I was born in Fergus and my family has been here since the beginning,” said Kristy Hillis in an interview.
“And I grew up going to the [Gorge] Cinema. It means a lot to me to restore the building and I think it means a lot to the community too.”
Hillis graduated from Centre Wellington District High School, went on to become a teacher, and spent 10 years teaching at an arts-based school in Bangkok.
It was there she became interested in precious gems and tried her hand at designing jewelry.
She took a leap one year, and left teaching to start a jewelry business and it has taken off.
Kat Florence is now an international custom-design jewelry business with locations in Bangkok, where the stones are cut, and Italy, where the pieces are put together.
Customers come from all over the world seeking one-of-a-kind designs.
Wherever Hillis resides serves as the design centre and for the past year that’s been Elora.
“I came back to Elora in that weird COVID year,” she said.
“And I was surprised that the building (on Mill Street West) was in such bad shape. I wondered, how is this building just sitting like this?”
The building was once the Commercial Hotel, originally constructed in 1848 and was a hotbed for social, economic and political life in the village in the mid-19th century.
It has a historical designation, not to mention many notorious stories about the village and its inhabitants.
Hillis did some digging and learned that it has belonged to a couple of developers in recent years, one with plans to building a 60-room hotel and push the cinema out.
“I wanted to get involved,” she said. “It’s taken some time, but I bought it and I’m passionate about restoring it.
“As the community grows, it’s important to preserve these heritage buildings.”
It’s early stages yet, but Hillis is working with an architect and has some rough sketches on paper. She will go through the process of seeking building permits and site plan permissions when the project is ready.
There will be public meetings and council will ultimately approve the plan or not.
“I want to be completely transparent with the community,” she said. “I hope they come along for the ride.”
The news that he has a new landlord with plans to retain the cinema makes Payton Curtis a happy man.
Curtis owns the cinema but rents the space and has known since signing the lease that his time at that location was nearly up.
When Curtis spoke to the Advertiser in October, he was worried the movie theatre would be no more if he couldn’t find a new home.
Between periods of total lockdown and limited capacity during the pandemic, the theatre is hanging on by a thread, he said.
“It’s nice having good news after a couple of years of bad,” he said on Jan. 5.
“The last time we spoke, it was tough to stay positive. Even if we could have been open all this time, at the end of the lease, it would have been over.
“This is the best news possible.”
It turns out Curtis and Hillis are old school chums who often rode the school bus together to East Garafraxa Public School back in the day.
“We lost touch and now 20 years later, our worlds collide once more,” said Curtis.
He noted he’s on board with Hillis’ plans and understands it means the movie house will be shut down for an extended period – perhaps years – once construction gets going.
He’s thinking about ways to hold outdoor screenings when that day comes and is looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Gorge Cinema in 2024 regardless of whether the theatre is open or not.
“Who knows [at] what stage the renovation will be, but it will be somewhere, and the Gorge Cinema will be,” he said.
“This feels like a large victory.”
Curtis praised Hillis for investing in her hometown by preserving a heritage building.
“Not everyone has the wherewithal and the money to save it, but she does and she’s preserving it for her town,” he said.
“It’s remarkable. I still can’t believe it.”