The Senator's future

Our view: City loan alone won't save troubled theater, but it's a start toward needed changes

January 29, 2009

Saving the Senator Theatre would be an uncommon gift to Baltimoreans. It would be a boost for the social and cultural life of the city and help the popular Belvedere Square marketplace continue to thrive. Bailing out the prickly owner of the historic theater with a city loan is less appealing, but the proposal deserves a serious review as a last-chance effort to keep the movie house in business.

City officials have rightly conditioned a $320,000 interest-free loan to the debit-ridden theater on its conversion to a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit status is attractive for several reasons: The theater would be spared the tens of thousands of dollars in amusement and property taxes it now has to pay, and it would provide a healthy dose of transparency to the theater's operations. But other changes are needed as well.

The condition of the loan might well require owner Tom Kiefaber to step aside, but it may be an offer he can't refuse. His home in Sparks has been mortgaged to help keep the theater afloat, and the city's proposal would remove the house as collateral. Mr. Kiefaber's impassioned pleas to preserve this 1939 piece of history have rallied Senator supporters time and again to save the day. However, his personal pitches can be as polarizing as they are passionate, alienating other potential backers.

But the beloved Senator is an asset to the North Baltimore community. The question is whether the theater, with its old-fashioned layout, can survive in this economy and succeed as other historic movie houses in Maryland have. The Avalon Theatre in Easton and the Silver Theatre in Silver Spring have reinvented themselves as cultural centers.

A panel of economic, film, finance and community specialists will review the Senator's operations and assess its chances as a nonprofit. That study should determine whether the Senator, with the city's loan offer, could be a viable venue in this competitive environment.

As the panel begins its work, Mr. Kiefaber shouldn't stand in its way.

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