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The selling of the Senator Theatre

The sale of Baltimore’s historic Senator Theatre was approved Wednesday by the city Board of Estimates for $500,000 — more than the property’s assessed value $350,000.

Thomas A. Kiefaber, former owner of the Senator Theatre, faces the audience as the Board of Estimates approves the sale of the building over his objections. ‘This is the way it works here in Baltimore City,’ Kiefaber said.

The city’s spending board voted to transfer title of the Art Deco-style theater from the Baltimore Development Corp., the city’s quasi-public development agency, to James “Buzz” Cusack and Kathleen Lyon, who have been renting the facility. They are in the midst of a $3 million renovation of the 73-year-old movie house that includes adding three screens (for a total of four) and a restaurant.

Under the deal approved Wednesday, the city will hold the mortgage for 40 years at a 2 percent fixed rate.

The board voted hastily amid comments by the Senator’s former owner, Thomas A. Kiefaber, who filed a protest against the proposal and testified that the deal was “one big sham.”

City Comptroller Joan Pratt cast the dissenting vote.

“This deal is too generous. I vote no,” Pratt said, of the plan, which also included a $700,000 construction loan for the ongoing renovations.

As the board voted, Kiefaber refused to leave the public testimony area at the front of the room and turned to address the audience.

“This is the way it works here in Baltimore City,” he said, spreading his arms.

The Senator Theatre is expected to reopen in March. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

Cusack and Lyon are a father-daughter theater management team who also own the Charles Theatre in the Station North Arts District. They have been operating under a rental agreement to run the Senator since Aug. 25, 2010, after the BDC bought the property at a sidewalk foreclosure auction.

Cusack, also a member of the city’s Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation, said Tuesday the sale would help him gain collateral for lenders.

Lyon said Wednesday that she and her father had invested about $1 million of personal funds into the Senator renovations, including a commercial loan from M&T Bank for which Cusack used his Bolton Hill home as collateral. The Senator renovation project has also drawn on revenues from the Charles Theatre, she said.

“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t believe in it,” Lyon said. “It’s an interesting commitment and we’re serious about it. We’re not halfway into this. We are all in.”

A District Court judge in Baltimore last month placed a restraining order against Kiefaber after Lyon complained to the court that Kiefaber had harassed and threatened her at the property.

In addition, Kiefaber was arrested outside the Senator in mid-August and charged with trespassing and harassing workers. A District Court judge has set a trial date for Nov. 5.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who voted to sell the movie house to the Cusacks, said afterward that the sale was a “good deal.”

“It is a historical landmark that needs to be a cultural icon for the city,” the mayor said. “The Senator had languished under the previous ownership. The Cusacks have a plan.”