Aurora residents debate: Should the movie theater reopen?

AURORA, Colo.—The theater where 12 people were killed and dozens more wounded by a body-armor wearing gunman last week may be turned over to its owner, Cinemark, as early as Friday, the Aurora Police Department has said. Will Cinemark reopen the theater, and will it expect its employees, even those who survived the attack, to return to work there?

Cinemark CEO Tim Warner flew in from Plano, Texas, to meet with employees over the weekend and mentioned that he hopes the theater will reopen eventually, according to people who were at the meeting. But the company is not expecting them to go back to work anytime soon, according to one Cinemark employee. The company "is being very generous and letting us have time to heal," that employee told Yahoo News.

A Cinemark spokesman in New York wouldn't comment on whether the theater will reopen or what the chain is offering the affected employees. "We're deeply saddened about this tragic incident," the chain said in a statement. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and loved ones, our employees and the Aurora community." Shortly after the attack, Warner said in an interview with a local NBC station that he was "devastated" by the news, but said he was confident it was an isolated, one-time incident.

[COMPLETE COVERAGE: Colorado theater shooting]

The potential reopening has stirred some debate among Century 16 employees and the Aurora community. One Century 16 employee anonymously started a Facebook group arguing that the entire theater should be shut down and reopened elsewhere. "A new one should be built but never again can this theater be used as a place to laugh and have fun," the employee wrote. "To reopen this theatre is just like going and watching a movie, and enjoying popcorn on the grave of the twelve names listed above."

Another employee wrote on the page, called "Close Century 16," in disagreement. "I went through that ... and watched people die. But if they want to open this theater let them," the 18-year-old wrote. "If we don't go back, it's telling James Holmes he won."

Locals who gathered at a makeshift memorial for the shooting victims across the street from the theater on Tuesday also expressed mixed feelings about whether the Century 16 cinema should one day open its doors again.

"In remembrance of these people, I don't think they should open it at all," said Aurora resident Tara Smith, 29, as she stood in front of 12 memorial grave markers where people have left stuffed animals, flowers and heartfelt notes for the victims. "I don't feel that it's right." Smith was inside the theater in 2005, before it was bought by Cinemark, when a fight broke out in the parking lot. She's never been back since. Now she drives 20 miles away to a theater in Parker, a different suburb of Denver.

"I definitely feel that it should reopen," said longtime resident Laurie Gough, who had gone to see "Brave" at Century 16 only a few weeks before the shooting. "I think somewhere nearby there should be a tastefully designed memorial." Gough added that she thought Theater 9, where the gunman shot most of his victims, should be closed permanently.

Lisa Gochenour, who recently moved to Aurora from Texas, told Yahoo News that she thinks both Theater 9 and 8 should be used for storage or some other nonmovie purpose; the way Columbine handled its reopening could serve as a model. (The parents of Columbine victims organized an effort for the school to tear down its second-floor library where Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed their peers in 1999. The library was rebuilt in a different style in another part of the building, and the old space is now an atrium.)

J.H. Verkerke, director of the University of Virginia's Program for Employment and Labor Law Studies, said that Century 16 employees who feel unable to return to work because of the trauma they experienced can apply for workers' compensation. Best business practices would dictate that Cinemark provide employees with grief counseling and some compensation while the theater remains closed, and it's common for companies to reopen after violent incidents, he said. "Most of the time, sites end up continuing in business despite horrific events," Verkerke said. "Sites of workplace violence generally continue as businesses, and the sensitive employer tries to make appropriate allowances for the feelings of people who have been hurt."

The Texas-based Cinemark bought Century theaters in 2006. The chain is the third-largest in the country, with nearly 300 theaters.