The long road to opening night

Civic leaders' bold strategy succeeded in raising millions for Hippodrome project, setting the stage for a renaissance on city's west side

Hippodrome

February 10, 2004|By Todd Beamon | Todd Beamon,Baltimoresun.com Staff

Last of two parts.

The Hippodrome Theatre opens tonight after a $63 million restoration. Today's report details how the financing was obtained to bring the project to fruition.

With a vision in mind and a plan in hand, those seeking to make the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center a reality faced an obvious, yet daunting, challenge: money.

There was only one way to do it: form a partnership between the region and the state's public and private sectors. The strategists were Frank P. Bramble, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and Donald P. Hutchinson, the organization's president.

Their approach: Hutchinson would rely on his decade of experience in the Maryland General Assembly, while Bramble would work local corporations for contributions. "I knew we couldn't raise $65 million totally from the private sector," Bramble said.

Hutchinson added: "The GBC orchestrated the lobbying effort, and we just refused to quit. We knew the theater was essential for Baltimore. We knew it was going to be hard work. We knew it wasn't going to be an easy sell."

And it wasn't.

"It was a gutsy decision," said Nancy Roberts, a board member of Hippodrome Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that oversees the theater. "The Hippodrome didn't look like the most hospitable place for Broadway-style theater. It was gutsy for all the business and public leaders who endorsed this also. There was public money in it."

Bramble, former chairman of Allfirst Bank Inc. and now chairman and chief executive MBNA America Bank Corp. in Wilmington, Del., and Hutchison, now president and CEO of the Maryland division of SunTrust Banks Inc., began their respective tasks.

In the General Assembly, Hutchinson, who served in both houses, worked on several fronts -- garnering support from the Maryland Stadium Authority and its executive director, Bruce H. Hoffman, as well as the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, headed then by James T. Brady.

After that, Hutchinson sought the backing of three key people in Annapolis: Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore State Sen. Barbara Hoffman and Baltimore Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Rawlings died last November.

To get Glendening on board, the GBC requested $1.7 million in state money in January 1998 to begin planning for a Hippodrome restoration. The request also included a tour of the theater, which had been closed since 1990. That occurred on Feb. 16, 1998.

"We had set up temporary lighting, and we were concerned about creating a fire hazard," Bramble said. "We also were concerned about rats."

Added Glendening, now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington: "I did the walk-through, much to the nervousness of my security staff and some of the legislators who were with us. Parts of the floor were falling in, there were holes in the ceiling -- but you could see the exciting potential that was there."

Bramble also tested the Hippodrome's acoustics from the balcony with Glendening. He asked J. Michael Riley, who worked under him at Allfirst, to speak to the governor in his regular voice tone from the theater's stage. "We could hear each other as clear as a bell."

"It was a very important moment," Glendening said. The tour sealed the deal.

Lobbying state leaders

Hutchinson then turned to wooing Hoffman and Rawlings.

"At first, they were very skeptical," he said. "Hoffman was asking all the tough questions. She was the skeptic. She was the one we had to convince.

"We knew that if we convinced her, that all the arguments against it would have been answered in her mind," Hutchinson added. "By doing that, we were able to, in effect, answer all the questions that anyone in the [General Assembly] was ever going to ask us."

Both legislators wanted a program for developing the neighborhoods surrounding the Hippodrome, Hoffman said.

"They didn't have a plan," she said. "If all you were going to do was develop the theater, it would fail. I just asked them, 'Where is your business plan?' That forced the whole group to think about it."

The plan arose from the activity taking shape on the west side of downtown. The University of Maryland-Baltimore was moving forward with a broad expansion plan that included a new dental school, law school, school of nursing, health-sciences library, as well as an expansion of the medical school.

The total value of these projects was more than $200 million. The Hippodrome had been gifted to UMB in 1997.

"It just seemed to me that, as the neighborhood rehabilitated itself, the Hippodrome could, in fact, be reborn," said UMB President Dr. David J. Ramsay. "It couldn't have happened unless the neighborhood developed."

But by early 1999, the redevelopment effort began to stall. "For a period of a few months, there was a slight loss of faith," Dr. Ramsay said. "The big investors really had to be convinced that this was going to happen."

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