Meridian, Idaho, has grown from 10,000 residents to more than 75,000 in the past two decades. While most people would argue that growth is good, leaders of rapidly growing cities understand there are often some pains that go along with progress.
In the past few years, the mayor and city council noticed that the community was growing so fast that many subdivisions were becoming their own mini-communities. In order for the city to avoid becoming a “pass-through” bedroom community, the mayor wanted to find a way to help Meridian develop its own identity, and bring people together.
Colin Moss, Recreation Coordinator for the Meridian Parks and Recreation Department and secretary of the Idaho Recreation and Park Association, was tasked with developing a plan for special events for the entire community.
As fate would have it, Mayor Tommy de Weerd heard that some cities were holding outdoor movie nights and brought it to Moss’ attention. That one comment has sparked one of the most successful programs in Meridian’s history.
Silver Screen Under The Stars
Moss’s search led to Open Air Cinema, a producer of outdoor-cinema equipment and inflatable movie screens. The screen had to be large enough for at least several hundred people to comfortably view a movie, easy to use, and durable enough for several years of use. In spring 2007, he purchased a screen with a viewing surface of 25 feet wide by 14 feet high.
“I lined up sponsorships from the businesses in the community in the winter of 2006, and we purchased the inflatable movie screen the next spring,” Moss says. “Then we launched Movie Night in Meridian in the summer of 2007, and showed family-friendly movies every Friday night in June, July and August. The community has really come together for this.”
Movie Night in Meridian is held at Settlers Park, and the venue has been appropriately wired. “The screen is so easy to set up; it only takes about 20 minutes to have everything ready for a show,” Moss says.
“There are so many things that keep us inside and apart from each other,” Moss says. “One of the main things we want to accomplish with this program is to get people out and to provide a platform for families to spend more time together.”
Embracing The Program
“With gas prices out of control and now that the country is in a down economy, people are really interested in finding something to do as a family that is inexpensive and fun. People in the community are turning Settlers Park into the place to be on Friday nights,” he says.
In the first summer of the program, movie nights averaged about 500 people per screening. The next year word spread, and the average was about 1,000 people per show. “During July, our highest attendance topped 2,000, and we have found that this program has been so successful we are making improvements to our park, including moving the screen location back about 100 feet to allow room for even more viewers,” he says.
The parks department was providing its own concession stand with pre-packaged candy and soda, but Moss says the turnout is getting too large for just those items. This year, professional vendors will pay the city to attend the events, and provide more food and refreshments.
“We have really created a nice atmosphere to watch a movie with friends and neighbors under the stars. This program has done wonders for helping us develop a great sense of community and togetherness,” Moss says.
Winters are cold in Idaho, but that hasn’t stopped the city’s parks and recreation department from putting their inflatable movie screen to work year-round. The screen was used for the city’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
“This is always a big event for Meridian, and one of the problems we have had in the past is there isn’t seating in the downtown plaza where we hold the event. If people are near the back of the crowd, they can’t see the kids who are singing or dancing in the program because they can’t see the stage,” he says.
The city set up the screen in the plaza by the stage, and turned it into a larger-than-life event. Before the ceremony, officials showed How the Grinch Stole Christmas. During the tree-lighting ceremony, they set up a video camera to project onto the screen what was happening onstage.
“Everything is now projected on the huge screen,” Moss says. “Even people in the back of the crowd–who have no chance of seeing the stage–can easily see what is happening.”
Every year, the city hosts an essay contest for fifth graders titled, “What the Winter Holiday Means to Me,” and the mayor announces the winners, shakes their hands, and presents the kids with their awards. In the future, Moss says the city is going to expand this theme to have a short-film contest for high-school students on “Winter Spirit.” They can do the films in conjunction with a class project. The entries will be shown on the screen at the ceremony.
Spreading The Word
“When we started Movie Night in Meridian, it was a unique idea in Idaho,” Moss says. “I presented a session at the annual Idaho Recreation and Parks Association Conference about how other cities can get their own Movies in the Park Program started. I shared with them the sponsorship package, and provided links to resources. Several people expressed interest for their cities. This is really a great, fun program that every city can enjoy.”
The inflatable movie screen has gone beyond movies in the park. It has evolved to become an integral part of how Meridian works and plays.