Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Senator Theatre – Possible Buyout

There’s a report from the Baltimore Messenger that the City of Baltimore has offered to buy the Senator Theatre by buying out Tom Kiefaber’s debt. I am strongly in favor of saving the Senator and having it remain open as a community-owned nonprofit, however, I have some thoughts and concerns about the City’s offer, as reported.

The biggest concern I have is that the Senator needs to remain open during the transition. A closure would surely result in losses to nearby businesses, as well as causing a depressed look in the area, which might drive people away and encourage crime. Psychologically, that is just not the message to send to the community and visitors to the area. Tom Kiefaber has a Photoshopped image of what the Senator might look like if closed. It was on display in the lobby recently, showing a very decrepit appearance. It’s something I don’t want to see in real life. (I tried to find that image on the internet, but couldn't find a link, so if anyone has it, let me know.)

I spent some time thinking about other historic buildings and theaters I’ve been aware of that closed and then had to struggle to reopen, and my recollections are not pretty. I think if the City does not have a plan in place for what to do with the Senator, so that it can remain open during the transition, it is likely to close for at least a year or two, not some shorter period.

My second biggest concern is that the report about the City’s buyout plan says that a steering committee would have to determine whether the Senator can be sustainable as a nonprofit. Well, who is going to be appointed to this steering committee? Will it be members of the community who are fully committed to finding a way for the Senator’s operations to become self-supporting? Or will it be some sort of bureaucrats who don’t really care if the answer they come up with is “No, it won’t work?” It seems to me that whether or not a solution is found is very closely tied to how determined the steering committee members are to finding one. For that reason alone, it’s imperative that the steering committee include members of local resident and business groups from the immediate neighborhood.

If the Senator is going to remain open daily, there need to be movies playing there, which means someone who knows how to run a movie theatre needs to be involved. There’s no way there will be special events every day, and the theatre needs to be open regularly to continue to provide the attraction to visitors that it currently does provide.

I’m a little disturbed by some of the attitudes I see posted in comments on the Messenger article. I never understand why some people think that because one problem isn’t solved, it means government shouldn’t spend money on solving other problems, or why some people think no money should ever be spent on the arts. What we’re talking about here isn’t a huge amount of money when it comes to government budgets, and putting it toward solving other problems, such as the crime in Baltimore, wouldn’t solve those problems. And for people who think government should never spend money on the arts, I’d really like to know what they think their lives would be like with no music, no movies, no TV, no books, no visual arts. Pretty boring, I would think.

Anyway, in my opinion the amount of money the City is talking about spending is not huge in terms of their budget and if done right, it could help keep the Govanstowne/Belvedere Square neighborhood vital during this difficult time. It would also help preserve and enhance the attractiveness of Baltimore as an arts-oriented community.

I also realize I’m relatively new to Baltimore, but I don’t get the attitudes a few people and some in the media seem to have toward Mr. Kiefaber. I think he's a nice guy who has been successful in keeping the Senator running for the past 20 years in the face of rather staggering odds. Yes, he has sometimes appealed to the community for help, but you know, for those of us who think the Senator is an important part of Baltimore, that shouldn’t be a problem. He also appears to be a very community-oriented businessman, very respectful of the neighbors and nearby businesses. I’ve seen plenty of business people who are just out to make a buck, so I have to say I prefer the community-oriented kind. If Kiefaber were just out to make a buck, he’d have ditched the Senator long ago, but he’s trying to preserve something he thinks is worth preserving. And hey, if you don’t agree, at least don’t be mean. That’s the way I see it, anyway.

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