Hippodrome sets 2003 curtain raising

Baltimore: Mark Sissman is the right man to get the new regional performing arts center finished.

October 11, 2001

TWO KEY PIECES of Baltimore's ambitious west-side redevelopment puzzle are finally coming together.

Construction of the new $63 million Hippodrome Performing Arts Center is to start within the next 60 days at Eutaw and Baltimore streets. The complex, with a 2,250-seat historic theater at its core, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2003.

Across the street, the city, after months of delays, has approved the sale of a square block for Bank of America's $60.8 million Centerpoint residential and retail development.

Those two showpiece projects are the anchors of a campaign to redevelop the seedy west side of downtown between the Charles Center office area and the University of Maryland professional schools and medical institutions. They are critical to downtown's future.

Even though the Hippodrome and Centerpoint projects are totally separate, they have become linked as by an umbilical cord. As long as the bank's building has been in limbo, private sources have been hesitant to commit the money needed to supplement the Hippodrome's state funding.

"It's a chicken-and-egg situation," acknowledges Mark Sissman, who is leaving a senior vice presidency at Bank of America to head the organization that will own the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center.

Enter the France-Merrick Foundation, which gave the Hippodrome a huge financial boost and lured Mr. Sissman on board.

The one-time deputy city housing commissioner is an excellent choice. He has the skills and contacts to put together the tax-credit packages and other financial instruments needed to complete the Hippodrome. He also has a knack for confidence building.

Just two years ago, Mr. Sissman, then working as a private consultant, persuaded Bank of America to consider two bold development projects in the city. Centerpoint was one; the other, still on the drawing board, was a plan to rebuild a devastated 18-block slum area in West Baltimore's Harlem Park.

At the Hippodrome, Mr. Sissman doesn't have a minute to waste if the 2003 opening goal is to be met. The rest of the private financing must be secured and a deal signed with a theater operator.

Over the past several months, when uncertainty shrouded both the Hippodrome and Centerpoint projects, some development experts feared the city would miss its big opportunity. Mr. Sissman's take-charge role reassures that this is not the case.

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