City considers buying Main Street theater

Building would provide a new home for Arts Council events

February 14, 2000|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

The city of Westminster is looking to buy and renovate the historic Carroll Theater on Main Street -- owned by the Church of the Open Door -- as a performing and community arts center.

The Common Council is expected to decide tonight whether to sign an option to purchase the approximately 70-year-old theater at 91 W. Main St. from the church for $310,000. The building would be used by the Carroll County Arts Council and possibly other local organizations.

"Many of us think it would be a perfect site for the Arts Council or art-related events," said Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan. "If it was renovated, I think it would really be a beautiful addition to that end of town."

Arts Council Director Sandy Oxx said she was reluctant to discuss the proposal before tonight's meeting because the city and the 1,000-member arts group have not entered into specific negotiations.

"This is certainly something that we are interested in and we are anxious to hear what the City Council has to say," Oxx said.

She added she would be delighted to have a theater, especially one that would offer a stage for the performing arts.

If the council approves the option, the city would have until April 15 to determine how to fund the acquisition. State grant money might be available if Westminster officials can characterize the purchase as part of its downtown revitalization efforts.

"The governor has been very good to Westminster and has been very supportive of projects like this," said Councilman L. Gregory Pecoraro, who is also the state's assistant secretary of transportation. "So we are very hopeful that we will be able to get funding for this."

Struggling to regain its status as a historic hub despite the encroachment of chain stores and restaurants on Route 140, Westminster is one of seven Maryland areas targeted recently for historical and commercial revitalization.

Resplendent with Victorian homes and buildings more than 100 years old, the nearly three-mile downtown stretch was placed on the state Department of Housing and Community Development's Main Street Maryland list last spring. The distinction added Westminster to a national program that has invested more than $7 billion in 1,400 communities since 1977 .

In the past five years, the business community has invested millions of dollars in renovation on Main Street: The old J.C. Penney building underwent a $750,000 face lift in 1995 to become the Winchester West Building; Jiffy Mart built a gas station and convenience store on a vacant lot in 1996; Barnes-Bollinger Insurance Services Inc. expanded its offices in 1998; and last year, Harry's Main Street Grille reopened after an extensive expansion.

City officials said the theater project would mark a westward expansion of that revitalization effort, which has mostly focused on the east side.

Yowan said a number of cities across the state -- including Easton -- have purchased and renovated old theaters for different uses.

The Carroll Theater, a mustard-colored brick and black glazed tile building, closed about 10 years ago. The Church of the Open Door has been using the theater for its Sunday bus church ministry; that service would likely be moved to the church's camp on Nicodemus Road.

"It still looks like a movie theater, and it needs a lot of work," said the Rev. Norris Belcher, Open Door pastor. "We have decided to go in another direction and do not want to put any money into the building."

The church put the art deco theater on the market a few months ago. Two other churches had expressed interest in buying it.

As soon as the building went up for sale, city officials inquired whether the Arts Council would be interested in the site. Oxx said she immediately thought of more space, better exposure and a government partnership -- all appealing prospects for an arts group that is "growing by leaps and bounds."

"I think it would be a great venue to have live poetry and live music," said Susan Tegeler, literature adviser for the council and a founding member of the Poetry Forum. "We could have film festivals and all kinds of neat things."

Most of the arts councils in Maryland are in buildings provided by local governments, she said.

The council is in a lower-level office and small gallery at 15 E. Main St.

Sun staff writers Mary Gail Hare and Brenda J. Buote contributed to this article.

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