SACO — A passing glimpse of a “for lease” sign at the Saco Drive-In has turned into a summer-long business project for three marketing students at the University of Southern Maine.

Juniors Ry Russell of Scarborough, Patric Brophy of Farmington and Tyler Wells of Holden, Mass., will run the Saco Drive-In for its 72nd season, which will start Memorial Day weekend.

The drive-in, which can hold about 500 cars, opened in 1939. It’s believed to be the oldest drive-in in Maine and, possibly, the second-oldest in the country that’s still in business.

Its three new operators got their idea in February, when Russell’s father noticed the sign and told him about it. Russell called the next day.

“What started as a little inquiry to the owners of the drive-in took off, and it’s been a phenomenal process so far,” he said.

The Roberge family, which has owned the drive-in since the mid-1980s, has handled operations for more than a decade. The Roberges have been trying to lease it for two years.

“The only reason we want to lease it is because we’re getting older. We’re getting close to retirement,” Pat Roberge said.

Unable to find someone to operate it, she ran the drive-in last summer.

When Russell called, it wasn’t until well into their conversation that Roberge realized his age, she said. Any doubts she had about college students taking over the business diminished when she met the three partners.

“I thought these were three smart kids. I was very impressed from the moment I met them,” Roberge said.

Russell, Brophy and Wells banded together for the project because they are all members of USM’s Students of Free Enterprise group.

Brophy admits he thought Russell was “nuts” when the idea was first presented. But they created a business plan, pooling their specialties in accounting, risk and insurance, and graphic design.

Then they weighed the pros and cons of running an outdoor movie theater. “We decided the experience trumped what we thought the risks could be,” Russell said.

This is the first major business endeavor for all three. They have received support from their professors and financial backing from investors, including some family members.

“We’ve had the classic training,” Brophy said. “Now we’re closing the gap from what we learned and applying it.”

Their marketing efforts are under way. On the drive-in’s Facebook page, they’re promising to charge only $10 a car on opening weekend if they get more than 5,000 fans before the season starts.

One of their instructors, Jeanne Munger, said increasing numbers of students are pursuing small-business opportunities.

“(Russell, Brophy and Wells) are just chomping at the bit to do something exciting and hands-on. From that standpoint, they’re really a unique group,” said Munger, an associate professor of marketing.

The students will earn some school credit as part of an independent study for the project, Russell said, but mainly they hope the business experience will set them apart from other students who graduate with marketing degrees next year.

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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