Senator scramble

Group urges city to stop auction, pay theater's loans

April 02, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

A private-public task force recommended Wednesday that city officials stop a planned auction of the beleaguered Senator Theatre and buy the 70-year-old North Baltimore landmark.

The panel, made up of city and state officials, as well as representatives from the private sector, recommended that the city foreclose on the property, pay off the $1.6 million owed to 1st Mariner Bank and the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, then find someone willing to operate the theater, preferably as a first-run movie house.

As an alternative, the 12-member Senator Theatre Strategy Group concluded, the city could allow 1st Mariner to continue with its planned April 20 foreclosure auction of the Senator and work closely with whoever purchases the theater to ensure its continued operation. Under that option, however, the city would have less control over its fate.

Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank said the city would consider the group's proposal, noting that "it goes beyond what we were initially willing to do."

Frank said city officials have a lot to consider over the next 18 days. The city would have to find a source for the money needed to purchase the theater and have it approved by the Board of Estimates. He said the city, which has guaranteed $600,000 of the $900,000 owed 1st Mariner bank, would have to find a viable operator.

"I'm going to discuss it with the mayor over the next couple of days," he said. "We're going to have to proceed rather quickly."

City Councilman Bill Henry, whose district includes the Senator and who was a member of the group, said he is confident that Mayor Sheila Dixon understands the importance of keeping the theater running.

"I have every reason to believe that she takes very seriously the importance of maintaining the Senator Theatre as both a cultural landmark and an economic engine for that community," he said.

The strategy group formed after city officials offered $320,000 to bail out the Senator, provided a nonprofit group could be found or established that could run the theater in the black. The group concluded that it was unlikely a nonprofit organization could afford the $2 million debt faced by current owner Tom Kiefaber. It also concluded, however, that continued operation of the theater was vital to the surrounding community.

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