City to the rescue

Our view: Its control of Senator Theatre would ensure viability as movie house

April 03, 2009

The Senator Theatre is a cultural anchor and community asset that's worth saving. And the push now is for the city to rescue the 70-year-old landmark. But the city shouldn't be expected to go it alone. A move by the administration of Mayor Sheila Dixon to avert the April 20 auction of the theater should be the first in a series of steps to have the theater reopened and preserved as a single-screen movie house.

The theater, which is now closed, needs this intervention. Its owner is facing foreclosure because its debts exceed $2 million. First Mariner Bank is seeking to collect what it can on the more than $900,000 it is owed from Senator owner Tom Kiefaber, who has struggled to keep the historic theater afloat at great personal expense. A study group that reviewed the theater's operations in anticipation of financial help from the city has found that the theater, even with a new owner, couldn't operate under all this debt. It recommended that the city move to take control of the Senator by negotiating a delay of the pending auction and then foreclosing on its $600,000 note.

The recommendation offers a viable way to preserve the theater as a movie house and protect the community's interest in having a popular entertainment venue in the Belvedere neighborhood. Taking control of the theater would require the city to settle the 1st Mariner loan and then clear its remaining debts. That would make it financially feasible for a new owner or lease-holder to take over management of the Senator and invest the estimated $500,000 for much-needed repairs to the building.

Over the years, fans, film-goers and friends of the theater often have rallied to its defense, collecting donations when the Senator's owner was on the brink of losing it. Now, they should join in a nonprofit effort to help provide moral and financial support for the theater in concert with a city bid to assume control of the Senator. That would provide the theater with additional resources to help make it a real community asset.

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