Hippodrome project might cost more Legislators express doubts about wisdom of theater renovations

September 24, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

The cost of renovating Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater and its surrounding area may be rising beyond original projections, prompting some members of the General Assembly to question the wisdom of investing any state funds in the project.

During a tour last week, members of the House Appropriations Committee were told that the cost of converting the vacant vaudeville house at 12 N. Eutaw St. to a 2,200-seat performing arts center could exceed the originally estimated figure of $35 million by anywhere from $2 million to $25 million.

Some legislators expressed skepticism that, given limited public funds, the building and its environs could be made appealing enough to attract the hundreds of thousands of visitors needed to keep a major performing arts center solvent.

"We're talking major money here," said Del. Martha S. Klima, a Baltimore County Republican. "Thirty million dollars is going to be a drop in the bucket in this place. I don't see how it's going to work. I don't know if taxpayers will want to come up with the dollars needed to make it habitable."

But proponents say the project is a centerpiece of the city's $350 million plan to revive the west side of downtown and deserves state backing.

"The importance of the Hippodrome is far greater than just a theater," said Bernard Siegel, chairman of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a group leading the effort to rejuvenate the west side of downtown. "It's a key to the whole [west side] plan. Unless the numbers are completely out of range, the project deserves support. We're very high on it."

The whole idea was "to help transform the area," said Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We feel there's a huge benefit to the city. The people who know this business are telling us this can be a huge success."

About a dozen appropriations committee members were briefed about the 1914 theater last week by Bruce Hoffman and Eli Eisenberg from the Maryland Stadium Authority, the agency that is coordinating efforts to renovate it.

Eisenberg declined to provide cost estimates for the project, saying the agency just hired a design team and hopes to come up with an accurate budget for the General Assembly by mid-December.

But he indicated that the previously discussed figure of $35 million may not be enough to complete the project, given costs for similar renovations and the work needed at the Hippodrome.

"Based on our early scratching of the surface, we're just not sure $35 million is a comfortable budget number," Eisenberg said this week.

Legislators speculated that the cost increase could be anywhere from $5 million to $25 million or more, depending on how elaborate the renovations are.

"It was in a sad, sad state of disrepair," Klima said of the theater. "We're looking at $80 million to $100 million, as far as I can see."

Donald Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the cost won't be anywhere near that high for the arts center alone. One reason his organization supported the Hippodrome renovation, he said, is that it would cost much less to complete than a new building.

"We're doing it to keep costs down," Hutchinson said. "If this cost $100 million, we wouldn't be advocates."

The idea of renovating the Hippodrome was suggested by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Downtown Partnership as a way to draw people downtown while providing a venue for Broadway-style shows that are too large for existing theaters. The Hippodrome, once renovated, would be expected to attract 450,000 to 600,000 visitors a year.

The General Assembly this year allocated $1.7 million to hire architects to prepare a feasibility study and develop a preliminary design by the end of the year. Once those studies are complete, the stadium authority will go back to the legislature to seek construction funds.

Earlier this year, Gov. Parris N. Glendening indicated he would commit $16.5 million for construction -- $8.25 million each year for two years. Other funds would come from foundations and private sources, including up to $10 million from a Houston-based company that wants to manage the Hippodrome, Theatre Management Group. The city has committed $6 million.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and chairman of the House appropriations committee, said he and other delegates are concerned about the seedy condition of the surrounding area as well as rising costs. He wants to know how the city intends to upgrade the area so theatergoers will feel comfortable at night.

"The question is whether this is a reasonable project, given its location," he said. "The tour helped to show that there needs to be a significant cultural change in the environment. In its current state it's not a neighborhood that you're going to entice theater patrons to attend, and until members of the appropriations committee have some assurance that there's a commitment in place to transform the entire area, I do not believe the project will be approved."

Peter G. Angelos, owner of the Orioles and head of a group that has proposed building a $150 million Grand Hyatt hotel three blocks south of the Hippodrome, said he believes many of the legislators' concerns are addressed in the recently unveiled plan to revive the west side of downtown.

It calls for more than $350 million in private funds to be coupled with $28 million in public funds to upgrade an 18-block stretch of downtown over the next nine years, including the blocks around the Hippodrome.

"I understand their apprehension" about the area, Angelos said. "But [the theater] is not going to stand alone. It's part of a larger plan. There's going to be a tremendous amount of change to the area."

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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