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The Senator Theatre…congregational church? (access required)

Think about it: 1) Baltimore's historic Senator Theatre is going up for auction next month and the asking price is about $1 million. 2) Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the theater's district, told me this week he expects that whoever buys it would need another $500,000 just for renovations and upgrades. 3) And who in this economy has ...


  1. Well, I cringe each time I see ear or read that Councilman Bill Henry represents my district. He may represent my district, but not myself and the people who LIVE in this community! Does anyone really still believe anything that comes out of his mouth? Kim Clarke as well has proven to be (for lack of a better word) a liar. Her behavior and what she said at Joan Conways meeting was shameful. Henry didn’t bother to show up at all! Telling several different people several different reasons why he couldn’t make it there. Baltimore owns thousands upon thousands of vacant/burned out properties, including The Mayfair Theater. We often talk about Baltimore’s crime rate….let’s start talking about the criminals we’ve elected and the criminals that are tunning this now shameful and disgraceful city.

  2. I live near The Senator, and I can’t imagine that the nearby restaurants “might be secretly excited to get the post-worship crowd” as anything other than a consolation prize for losing the afternoon and evening business they would lose if The Senator ceases to be a theatre. Greg’s Bagels is about the only local business that might actually benefit from The Senator becoming a church.

    The bigger issue, as far as I’m concerned, however, is that it would be absolutely tragic to lose such a beautiful and unique historic theatre, the last of its kind in Baltimore. The Senator needs to remain a multi-purpose entertainment venue. Ideally, the building should be owned by a non-profit that has as its mission the preservation and restoration of the historic building. The non-profit can operate it as a theatre or lease it to a for-profit theatre operator. Methods of operation can be debated, but what should be obvious to everyone by now is that the building should be owned by a non-profit, as is the model for many successful historic theatres all over the country.

    It’s a shame that the city government’s maneuvering to control the outcome has backfired to such an extent that now The Senator’s future is up for auction to the highest bidder and we’ve gotten completely off the track of converting it into a non-profit, which was initially the goal and should have remained the goal all along.

  3. Tiny Avenger has a good point about our city officials and the various conflicting stories that come out of their mouths at various times to different people. But one thing she missed is the more specific point about Bill Henry’s assertion that the buyer of The Senator would need to spend an additional $500K for renovations and upgrades. Where is he getting this number, other than thin air?

    I am very familiar with the condition of The Senator. I spend a LOT of time there, as I have been volunteering my time to help keep the place open for the past few months. Would someone need to spend an additional $500K if they wanted to renovate the building completely to near-original condition? Maybe, but that would be just a guess. Would they need to spend that much immediately just to continue to run it? NO WAY. Not even close.

    Bill Henry’s wild guess of a very large number seems designed to scare bidders away from the auction, which is a tactic city officials have seemed to be using all along, for what reason we can only guess. I would assume it has something to do with trying to hand the building over to a favorite developer. Since it’s in taxpayer’s best interests for the city to make back their recent investment (and only investment in the Senator in the past 10 years) at the auction, it seems irresponsible at best to be trying to minimize auction day turnout.

  4. As the present owner of The Senator Theatre, I want to commend Liz Farmer for staying on this evolving story, as others have drifted off after lulling the public into thinking that Baltimore City has taken action to “save” The Senator Theatre. As her blog highlights, The Senator is presently in a more precarious position than ever in its 70 year history of award-winning family ownership and operation.

    What many alarmed citizens don’t know, is that plans for The Senator’s conversion to a proven not-for-profit ownership model have been developed since 2007 through numerous town meetings, scores of round table discussions, and planning sessions that involved our extended North Baltimore communities. Throughout the inclusive, community-based process, 4th district Councilman Bill Henry only showed up on occasion to grandstand and obfuscate. The process has unfortunately revealed that Councilman Henry is yet another mercurial politician; one who represents himself and not his constituents.

    In the latter part of 2008, the severe economic downturn stalled progress on the not-for-profit transition and threatened the operational status of The Senator. In response a public press conference was held at the Senator where community and business association leaders called for our city and state economic development representatives to assist a collaborative, community-based effort to transition The Senator Theatre to not-for-profit ownership. This critical transition must occur if The Senator is to realize its very real potential to become the premiere educational and entertainment venue in the region.

    Instead of assistance, the call for an inclusive process to bring the community’s non-profit Senator Theatre ownership goals to fruition triggered a barrage of criticism and subterfuge by city officials. The most extreme example came from the BDC in the form of a Daily Record cover story that included quotes from Kim Clarke defaming me as solely responsible for The Senator’s precarious situation. Her quotes were quickly picked up as soundbites by the TV news broadcasts. Ms. Clarke has since publicly repudiated her damning quotes, although her change of heart cannot undo the severe damage done to my professional credibility and the extended community’s support for not-for-profit ownership of Senator Theatre.

    In the past few months a convoluted series of announcements and actions by the city has The Senator Theatre hurtling towards a precarious public auction on 7/21, where many have predicted that it will be sold to a religious non-profit organization. It’s a unacceptable scenario that should be seen for what it is and averted like a head on collision. The latest public assurances by Ms. Clarke and Councilman Henry that the city can still control the outcome of The Senator’s public auction, by threatening to sever the historic theatre from its critical long-term parking easement, ring hollow. They are increasingly unrealistic assurances that can be thwarted in a number of ways by a church entity with a winning bid at auction.

    The time has arrived for all who have a vested interest in The Senator’s potentially glorious second act, to get involved through their political representatives. It’s imperative that the process gets back on track in order to avert a potential impending disaster that may have a severe and lasting negative impact on the Belvedere Square commercial district and the extended North Baltimore communities that surround it.

    Tom Kiefaber

  5. Changing our “elected figures” would require something called UNITY… and we think we achieve that by raising the American Flag on our porches… we have have ourselves to blame…

  6. As someone who experienced activism fatigue in the years following the early days of the Iraq invasion, I’m curious to hear suggestions about the best ways in which to motivate our political representatives.

    Back in 2003 and 2004, I watched as a massive, powerful political minority steamrolled over the voices and wishes of the opposition to a violent “hostile takeover” (as the same action is called in other industries) of a country that was not an immediate threat to our mainland or our “freedom” (although I will agree that the freedom of the average American citizen was very much threatened during those years). True, I get that there were voices that supported the invasion (and everyone has their own reasons for doing so despite the illusion of unity), but the powers that were (thank goodness for the past tense) not only ignored them, but crushed and smeared them wherever possible.

    This resulted in an unfortunate side effect in my own drive for political activism: Why bother?

    So, here we are. The threat to The Senator, while not as massive or dire as the threat to the lives of thousands of people, is still an intimate affront to myself and everyone who is touched by the theater’s history (and its present). I read Laura’s blog, I look at these video clips and I read the quotes and I wonder:

    What can really be done here!? Is there really a representative to whom we can appeal? Ultimately, money is what’s talking here and I can see with a sinking feeling that we will all fall before the might of The Lord’s pocketbook.

  7. Yes, I agree money talks. So, why not have a picket line in front of Belevedere Square with signs saying, “Without the Senator Theatre, the public won’t be visiting YOUR business”. Also the theatre is vital to the area by drawing people from Baltimore County and other surrounding counties. Why hasn’t Jim Smith’s office been contacted? This matter effects his public’s quality of life as much as Baltimore City.

    So, I agree that politicians INCLUDING State and Senatorial members MUST be contacted to raise attention and truely SAVE the Senator from this monster of Baltimore City disgrace.

  8. I really do not think any of the politicians that have taken an ‘interest’ in this issue truly care about it as many of us customers of the Senator do. Its a wonderful distraction for politicians to divert away from crime at the harbor, drug use and business running from the city.

    Tom, sorry you got stuck in the middle of this mess. If they just get the hell out of the way and let you run a business the way it needs to and make the changes, this would be a non-issue. Thanks for the great memories, my fondest being a special John’s Hopkins Hospital Benefit around 17 years ago where you showed the Star Wars trilogy, one movie each saturday for three weeks. Long before they remastered them so it was really like sitting in the theatre again as a child watching the same prints.

    Good luck

  9. Chuck from Waverly

    Well I think we have two models we can look at right here in our own back yard.

    The Boulevard Theater. It was converted into a church and other businesses. The other is The Hippodrome Theater. It was taken over by the city and renovated. Both were in slowly decaying areas of the city. The Hippodrome helped rebound its neighborhood bringing national tours that used to bypass the Baltimore area. The Boulevard, well lets just say the only “Cats” you will see there are in its back alley.

  10. If they are so anxious to put a church in this theater then they should consider the Huber Memorial location.three blocks south. Huber is planning to vacate and move further east on Woodbourne. All we need is another non tax paying entity with horrible traffic issues. Henry is pandering to select constituents and is only representing himself. He stated that feedback regarding disposition of the Senator had been solicited from his district. This is an outright lie.

  11. southern neighbor

    It could be a theater that rents to a church on Sunday mornings, but you can bet it won’t be the other way around!

  12. There are so many good things going on in the greater Belvedere Square corridor. The Senator has been the perfect complement to surrounding businesses and makes the area a unique and exciting place to spend time. While I am church-goer, I think any commercial real estate professional would agree that we have plenty of churches per square mile that appropriately cover all faith needs.City dwellers are excited and proud to enjoy the great offerings of the area. Without The Senator, we are incomplete. Each business that fails has a negative impact to all property owners – private & commercial. I am also concerned about the encroaching crime. The Senator needs to be re-opened as soon as possible in some type of entertainment venue. The equilibrium must be restored.

  13. Theater to church thing was attempted on 25th street and didn’t work. It would be instructive to know why.

    I like the “theater rents out for church” idea. It could be a great place for congregations of several churches to worship together once a month to learn more about each other. That would foster the true meaning of brotherhood and sisterhood. Perhaps there could also be an appropriate film shown after the service.

    A little sunday lunch, a spiritual movie then spaces for tables in the lobby that local church-goers could rent for the day to show their wares or causes. While that was going on, there could be some live spiritual music on stage with local artists who could sell their CDs.

    One area down front could be set aside for children under the watchful eye of 3-4 volunteer “sitters.” This would allow their parents a few minutes to talk to others while their children were safely looked after and entertained by the music.

    Politicians, local government employees would be invited to explain themselves and their agendas, for a small fee. $50. Community association leaders could speak for free, providing their content was not commercial or divisive. Each script would have to be cleared before it was given and be limited no more than ten minutes. A screen could be set up for powerpoint or video presentations.

    Discussions and/or debates between politicians and community association leadership could take place. Problems could be addressed. Solutions could be formed. Progress could be made. People could come together and, in doing so, could learn to work together.

    Anybody else want to toss in here? I need some more coffee.


    Ty Ford

  14. If your own politicos don’t listen to you, they surely won’t care what we out in the burbs think. Is there anything we can do?