The tempest brewing around the fate of Baltimore's sole surviving single-screen movie theater continued to churn Monday, with one potential operator denying it had been forced to withdraw from consideration while another revealed an unexpected, last-minute appeal to take over the building.
Towson University and its radio station, WTMD, dropped out of the running to operate the Senator Theatre because of economic concerns and not because of pressure from the Baltimore Development Corp. or anyone else, a spokeswoman for university President Robert L. Caret said Monday.
"The decision to withdraw was our own," spokeswoman Marina Cooper said. "Our decision to withdraw was the result of no consultation with anyone."
Late last week, the advocacy group Friends of the Senator decried the city's acquisition of the Senator in July 2009 as "a corrupt process rife throughout with collusion, fraud, and deceit." The group's volunteers have been helping former owner Tom Kiefaber operate the theater since the city bought it at auction.
Key to the group's argument, as outlined in a news release issued late Friday afternoon, is talk of a "hush-hush" meeting between Caret, BDC President M.J. Brodie and Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry. After the meeting with Caret, according to the release, the WTMD proposal was withdrawn, "citing vague 11th-hour economic concerns."
Cooper, however, said such a meeting "never happened," and reiterated that the WTMD proposal was withdrawn strictly because of financial considerations. Caret and Embry do dine together on occasion, she said, but those meetings had nothing to do with the fate of the WTMD proposal.
In June, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake accepted the BDC's recommendation that the city begin exclusive negotiations for operating the 71-year-old North Baltimore landmark with Charles Theatre operator James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen.
In a last-minute appeal Friday, Rotunda Theatre operator Ira Miller asked that he and unnamed partners be allowed to operate the Senator. In a letter sent to Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Miller said he feared the Rotunda would be "cleared" if the Senator was awarded to the Cusacks. Such clearance, an industry practice that prevents the same movies from being shown in theaters within a certain distance, would keep movies running at either the Charles or Senator from running at the Rotunda.
Miller said in his letter that the person booking films for the Senator and Charles "has made it clear he will seek a film clearance over the Rotunda." But George Mansour, that film booker, said Monday he would not exercise clearance, provided Miller reciprocates.
"If the Rotunda won't look for clearance over me, I won't look for clearance over him," Mansour said. "No clearance!"
Miller also said that by renting, leasing or purchasing the Senator, he would contribute more to the city's coffers than the $1 a year rent to be paid under the Cusack proposal.
Kathleen Cusack said the fate of the Senator rests squarely in the city's hands. "It's the city of Baltimore's building," she said Monday night, "and we respect the city's decision whatever it may be. But we have confidence in our proposal."
Former Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank, who is among those accused of underhanded maneuverings in the Friends of the Senator release, defended the city's and the BDC's actions throughout the process. Input from Kiefaber and representatives of the area surrounding the Senator was sought throughout, he said, and preservation of the Senator has always been the city's primary concern.
"I have enormous respect for Mr. Kiefaber's passion and advocacy over the years to preserve the Senator Theatre, against all odds, as a first-run movie theater," said Frank, who left his position in May to take a job with the Johns Hopkins University. "I regret that he does not now believe that the city acted purely in the best interest of the community, Belvedere Square and the theater itself."
BDC officials declined to comment on the release. Through a spokesman, Rawlings-Blake said that she "wants to move forward with a successful and profitable Senator Theatre that Baltimore will be proud of."
Kiefaber is under orders to vacate the theater Wednesday.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Sragow contributed to this article.
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