High hopes

September 25, 2002

REOPENING A spruced-up movie theater at the Rotunda has to be good news for film buffs, the neighborhood and the community at large. But is it a good investment for the city? After some tough questions, Baltimore officials believe that it is.

The city, through its development arm, has agreed to guarantee half of a $1.2 million bank loan to Tom Kiefaber to renovate and reopen the Rotunda theater and, through its operation, help shore up Mr. Kiefaber's historic movie palace, the Senator.

The loan guarantee makes sense because the city is already engaged in efforts to revitalize Belvedere Square, a once-thriving shopping area on York Road across the street from the 889-seat Senator. Just as important is the stability of the Rotunda shopping center in North Baltimore, which has suffered since Loews Corp. closed the two-screen theater last year.

When Loews pulled out, Mr. Kiefaber saw yet another chance to keep his beloved Senator operating and, hopefully, in the black.

He plans to return the Rotunda to operation, free up the Senator from a full run of a flagging movie (he could move it to a smaller Rotunda screen) and set up a nonprofit foundation to run the theaters. That would enable fans of the Senator -- and some high rollers at that -- to contribute to its well-being in exchange for a tax write-off.

Mr. Kiefaber has never suffered from a dearth of ideas. But his finances haven't always kept pace with his imagination. Granted, operating a nostalgic, Art Deco movie palace in a time of mega-multiplexes is a challenge.

In 1997, he promoted the idea of expanding the Senator with two screens and building a clone of the old Nibble & Clink diner right there on York Road. But he couldn't make that happen.

Three years ago, he received financial help from the city, the state and the Abell Foundation for the Senator. The city loan conditioned repayment on revenues; the city hasn't yet been repaid, officials say.

This new deal won't require any up-front money from the city, though, because Mr. Kiefaber is borrowing from a bank and putting up the theater, equipment and his private home as collateral.

City officials say they are impressed with Mr. Kiefaber's new team of financial advisers. Under the agreement, the city would appoint 20 percent of the foundation's board -- and it should name folks with a financial background to protect its interest.

The plan may seem as convoluted as the plot of the remake of Mission Impossible. But if it enlivens two city neighborhoods and keeps a movie-going treasure afloat, then the best Hollywood screenwriter couldn't write a happier ending.

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