No Hollywood Ending

Our View: The City Must Set Limits On Its Commitment To The Senator Theatre

July 24, 2009

In the Hollywood version of Wednesday's auction of the Senator Theatre, the auctioneer would have intoned, "Going once, going twice," and right there, in the pregnant pause before he lowered the gavel to the podium and consigned the historic Art Deco movie house to the wrecking ball, a sudden outpouring of community support would have materialized, It's a Wonderful Life-style, to bail out the plucky owner and hero of our story, Tom Kiefaber. Or maybe in a slightly more realistic version, the theater would have been bought by a mysterious bidder who turned out to be a rich, eccentric movie buff and promised to keep the place going. (And let Mr. Kiefaber run the projector and make his little speeches before the show starts.)

What we got instead was a confusing mess. One bid came in at $800,000, about $150,000 less than the city had paid for the Senator's mortgage earlier this year. City officials huddled and, according to First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank, decided to bid $810,000 to retain control of the theater rather than allow it to go to the anonymous bidder, who might not have shared the city's goals for the Senator. Now, Mr. Frank says, the city intends to issue a request for proposals with the goal of selling the theater to a nonprofit or businessperson who would run it in a way that fits with Baltimore's hopes for Belvedere Square.

Why exactly the city thinks there might be more interest in the theater in an RFP process than in the auction is unclear. Two local businessmen with great success in the entertainment field, developer David Cordish and Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack have both expressed interest in the Senator but did not bid. Mr. Cusack says the theater would have had to be "unreasonably cheaper" for it to be financially viable. Both he and Mr. Cordish have talked about adding a restaurant or other amenities to make the single-screen model workable, and that doesn't count the other renovations that would be necessary to get the theater up to snuff. The roof leaks, and the seats are long overdue for a replacement. (Mr. Cusack says seats run $150 to $200 apiece, a big chunk of change for a 900-seat theater.)

What that means is the city's hope to recoup its investment is wildly unrealistic, at least in the short term. Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration portrayed the auction results as a positive development, but they really just proved that the city bought the theater for a lot more than it's worth at a time when Baltimore is facing severe budget trouble.

The mayor needs to move quickly to create the "wide-open, transparent process" for finding a new operator that her administration promised. Baltimore needs to find someone with Mr. Kiefaber's passion, but with better luck, deeper pockets and, perhaps, more business acumen. What it does not need is someone who assumes Baltimore will bail him out if times get tough.

There is no doubt that Belvedere Square is a stronger, more vibrant community with the Senator than without, and some level of public investment could pay off in the long run in terms of increased business activity and taxes. But the mayor needs to engage the community in an honest dialogue so it can decide how big of an investment it's willing to make.

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