Did DI owners speculate on land? Not all of them

A few weeks ago when the Cottage Grove DI closed, I included a link to a Minnesota Public Radio interview with a local drive-in historian. If you listened to the interview, you learned that one of this guy’s main points was that the wave of drive-in popularity was really a wave of land speculation. According to him, sharp real estate guys guessed that big tracts of suburban land would be valuable within a decade or two, so they built drive-ins to occupy those spaces to get a trickle of income while they waited for Walmart to be invented.

That’s a really interesting theory that I hadn’t sufficiently considered before hearing it. In retrospect, I’m sure a certain percentage of drive-in landowners had this in mind. (Note that the owner of the land was sometimes different than the operator of the drive-in.) But what was that percentage? Were the majority of late-50s drive-ins on speculators’ land? Or was it just a small fraction? I suspect that quantifying the motives of landowners half a century ago will always be an impossible task.

What got me thinking about this was the quiet announcement halfway down a page in The Daily Record (Baltimore MD) that someone is building a townhouse development on the site of the old North Point DI site in Dundalk MD. As you can see by the Google satellite image above, taken in 2012, nothing of consequence has been done to this site since the drive-in closed. According to the Daily Record story, “(t)he last picture show there was in 1982.”

I’ll grant you that among the thousands of drive-ins that proliferated in the 1950s and 60s, at least some of them were built because of land speculation. But I don’t think that paying property taxes on idle land for 30 years was part of that plan. The North Point is just the most recent example that shows that if speculation was the goal, some of these drive-in landowners didn’t do a very good job of it.