Visit reinforces worries on renovating of theater Legislators question Hippodrome project

September 28, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN STAFF

Martha S. Klima is a state legislator who ought to be a natural ally of those who want to turn Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater into a performing arts center.

Born and raised in the Baltimore area, Klima can remember visiting the 1914 theater when she was a teen-ager in the 1950s to see singing sensation Julius LaRosa. She's an advocate of historic preservation. Her district in northern Baltimore County includes many residents who attend plays in the city -- logical beneficiaries of any new arts center.

But after a recent tour of the dormant Hippodrome to learn about the renovation plans, Klima said she came away more skeptical than when she went in.

"It was very discouraging," she said. "I was blown over by the decay and mold. Whole chunks of the theater had disappeared. When you leave a building uncared for and unused for so long, it just takes its toll and the renovation costs are astronomical."

And the area is not the sort of place theater patrons are going to want to frequent even if the Hippodrome is restored, she said.

"There's no way in heck that people are going to go down to that area. Money alone does not create a safe environment. It's going to take a miracle."

It is just the kind of miracle that proponents of the theater restoration are trying to bring about.

Transforming the Hippodrome at 12 S. Eutaw St. into a 2,200-seat performing arts center is seen as a key to a planned $350 million effort to revive the west side of downtown Baltimore, area that's languished while the Inner Harbor waterfront has thrived.

State funding needed

So, the skepticism voiced by Klima, a Baltimore County Republican, and other state House Appropriations Committee members who toured the building this month, shows advocates of the Hippodrome how much they must do to convince key legislators that the project deserves funding.

Without strong financial support from the legislature, the $35 million Hippodrome project can't proceed.

And even though funds have been allocated for design work, legislators warn, proponents shouldn't assume construction money will automatically follow.

Previous failure noted

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and head of the appropriations committee, said committee members want to be cautious after supporting Columbus Center, a $160-million marine research facility that has fallen into receivership because of lower-than-expected attendance at its public Hall of Exploration.

"You don't just refurbish the Hippodrome and say 'If you build it, they will come,' " Rawlings said. "We built the Columbus Center, and they didn't come, and that was with $18 million in state funds. My members have kept that vision in front of them. We're not going to do it again."

Renovating the state-owned Hippodrome was suggested by the Greater Baltimore Committee and Downtown Partnership as a way to revive the west side of downtown while providing a venue for large Broadway-style shows that bypass the city.

Neighborhood-wide plan

The project has the backing of the West Side Task Force, a public-private group that developed the $350 million plan to revive 18 city blocks, including the area around the Hippodrome.

Bernard Siegel, head of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, a leader in the West Side Task Force, said the theater renovation is one of the most important elements of his group's vision for downtown, with plans for a $150 million Grand Hyatt hotel north of Oriole Park.

Theater seen as catalyst

Siegel said cancellation of the theater restoration would be devastating to the larger plan for the area, because it's regarded as a catalyst for many other activities.

"Every time you take something like the Hippodrome and scratch it, you vastly decrease the chances of everything else working," Siegel said.

Eliminating the theater could make accomplishing the rest of the plan "almost impossible," Siegel warned. "I think it's terribly important for the overall project. Loft apartments are wonderful, but you need more. A theater is the kind of thing that brings people downtown."

Welcome by panhandlers

The tour on Sept. 18 was one of the first efforts to provide information about the theater project to key legislators, but it didn't go smoothly.

When the legislators arrived half an hour ahead of schedule, they were greeted not by all the people they were scheduled to see, but were harassed by panhandlers. They never received a full briefing on plans for the area. Part of their discussion focused on speculation the construction figure of $35 million might not be enough to complete the project.

Gene Bracken, a spokesman for the Greater Baltimore Committee, said the theater proponents still hope they can convince state legislators and others that the project makes economic sense and will benefit Baltimore.

He said his group expects hard questions from the legislators.

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