Towson University withdraws Senator Theatre proposal

March 31, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach | | Baltimore Sun reporter

Towson University and its radio station, WTMD-FM, have withdrawn their proposal to turn Baltimore's historic Senator Theatre into a studio and performing arts center.

The request to withdraw the proposal came from Towson officials shortly after noon Wednesday, said Kimberly Clark, executive director of the Baltimore Development Corp., the quasi-public agency that will decide who operates the 71-year-old movie house. The city took over operation in July after then-owner Tom Kiefaber could not keep up with mortgage payments and the theater was put up for auction.

In a statement sent via e-mail Wednesday afternoon, James Sheehan, Towson's vice president for administration and finance, said the WTMD proposal fell victim to the uncertain economic climate.

"Due to the continuing economic pressures faced by the State of Maryland and thus Towson, and the uncertain economic climate that we expect to face the remainder of this year, we have determined that it is best not to take on this complex new venture at this time, but rather concentrate on the needs of our students," Sheehan wrote.

Towson's withdrawal leaves only one proposal left under consideration by the BDC. Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack has proposed continuing to operate the theater as a first-run movie house while adding restaurants on both sides.

"I'm excited for the prospect of [Cusack's] proposal becoming reality," said City Councilman Bill Henry, whose district includes the Senator and surrounding communities. "On behalf of the other businesses surrounding the Senator Theatre, I'm looking forward to having it open on a daily basis as quickly as possible."

Clark said the BDC review committee would continue evaluating Cusack's proposal, including additional financial information it had requested at its March meeting and has since received. While Cusack's proposal is the only one still under consideration, Clark said that does not guarantee the review committee will recommend it, or that the BDC will accept that — or any — recommendation.

"They could say that is financially responsible, or they could say they want to continue to dig," Clark said. "There are a myriad of possibilities."

Cusack, who purchased the Charles in 1994 and has since enlarged it from one to five screens by expanding into an adjoining building, could not be reached for comment.

The BDC also had requested additional financial information on the WTMD proposal, she said, but never received it.

Clark said the BDC could make its recommendation on the theater's future to Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake as early as its next board meeting, set for April 22.

The WTMD and Cusack proposals received support from the community. Supporters of Cusack's proposal have noted his ability to keep the Charles operating and relatively debt-free and are optimistic he would have similar success with the Senator.

"It plays to what Buzz does; he's a builder and a contractor by training," said Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz. "What he did at the Charles when he put in four screens at unbelievable cost and then hung in there proves his capacity for the job."

Kiefaber, whose maternal grandfather opened the Senator in 1939, was a strong supporter of the Towson plan. The Senator cannot remain viable, he has said, without the nonprofit component included in WTMD's plan.

At the same time, however, some people living near the Senator have voiced opposition to any plan that could bring more college students into their neighborhood.

On Wednesday, the advocacy group Friends of the Senator Theatre continued its objections to the BDC's evaluation process. It insists that the BDC should seek more input from experts in the field of historic theater preservation and that the process of choosing an operator is fatally flawed without it.

"It's time to heed the rising call for Baltimore city to apply proven national standards established by historic theater redevelopment experts to determine an optimal future for Baltimore's renowned and irreplaceable Senator Theatre," the group's president, Thomas Harris, wrote in an e-mail.

Clark countered, however, that the BDC has taken the group's concerns into account. "It's not like we're out there in a vacuum," she said. "We've had lots of conversations with lots of different folks, and they're ongoing."

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