BDC recommends Senator Theatre plan

Under new management, venue would remain a place to see movies

April 22, 2010|By Edward Gunts, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's historic Senator Theatre would be leased to new managers and continue to operate as a setting to see first-run movies, under a recommendation to Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake from the Baltimore Development Corp.

The development agency's board of directors voted in closed session Thursday to recommend that a group headed by Charles Theatre owner James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen, be allowed to lease the York Road landmark for up to 40 years and renovate it for continued use as a movie theater, according to BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie.

The lease terms have not been completed, Brodie said. If Rawlings-Blake approves, Brodie said, Cusack's group would receive an "exclusive negotiating privilege" to work with the BDC to finalize a plan for taking over the property, which is considered an anchor for the Belvedere Square commercial district.

A lease also would have to be approved by Baltimore's Board of Estimates before the new operators could take control. In the meantime, the city-owned theater will be operated on a contractual basis by former owner Tom Kiefaber, Brodie said.

The recommendation potentially marks the end to a long effort by the BDC to identify an operator for the 1939 theater, which the city acquired last year after Kiefaber defaulted on a city-backed loan from 1st Mariner Bank.

The bid from the Cusacks was one of four that the agency received after it sought proposals from developers. Two teams were eliminated by a selection panel, and a third from Towson University's WTMD-FM public radio station was withdrawn this year for financial reasons, leaving the Cusacks' bid as the only one under consideration.

Kathleen Cusack said Thursday that her team was pleased to hear about the BDC's recommendation. "We are honored and excited, and will do our very best to maintain the legacy of the historic Senator Theatre," she said.

Before the agency's directors went into closed session, board member Debra Devan outlined the terms that the Cusacks proposed for taking over the property, but cautioned that they were subject to negotiation.

She said the Cusacks want an initial 15-year lease, with options to extend it to 40 years, with the rent to be $1 a year for the duration of the lease. The building would be off the tax rolls.

"They are looking to tie the building up for potentially 40 years at $1 a year," but they will take care of day-to-day maintenance, renovation and operating costs, Devan told the board.

Devan said the Cusacks asked for funding assistance for renovations in the form of a $600,000 loan from the city, at an interest rate of 2 percent a year over 20 years, and a $100,000 "grant" that would not have to be repaid. The Cusacks would contribute $400,000 for improvements, according to Brodie. In return, they propose a revenue-sharing plan that would give the city 5 percent of the theater's revenues if it makes more than $2 million a year, Devan said.

"In our dreams we would like to see that, but I don't think we put much weight in that" coming to fruition, Devan said.

The Cusacks' renovation plan calls for the number of seats to be reduced from 900 to 760 and the theater's current seats to be replaced with larger ones.

The plan calls for the addition of a restaurant and a crepe shop on the premises, with the restaurant replacing the women's lounge. That part of the plan is subject to approval by Baltimore's preservation commission, of which James Cusack is a member, and probably by other preservation groups if the Cusacks seek tax credits for historic preservation, which they have said they intend to do.

The Cusacks have been negotiating with a child care provider that would use the theater for children's arts programs from 9 a.m. to noon each day, making it possible to show movies starting at 1 p.m. seven days a week.

They also have proposed that land on the south side of the theater be developed in a separate phase to create a second, smaller movie theater, giving the Cusacks more options in booking movies.

Brodie said the Cusacks have been successful with the five-screen Charles Theatre complex and have a good relationship with movie distributors.

"There was a feeling that there could be a good synergy" between the Charles and the Senator, Brodie said.

Alex Castro of Castro Arts, the lead designer for the Charles Theatre expansion and a member of Baltimore's Public Art Commission, would head the Cusacks' design team. Cusack, a contractor, would be responsible for the renovation and expansion work. The timing of the change in management would be dependent in part on the length of the negotiating period, Brodie said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Sragow contributed to this article.

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