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

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Baltimore City Looking for a Way Out of Deal with Tom Kiefaber?

ABC News reports on Baltimore Budget Woes:

City councilman Bill Henry told a meeting of community residents the deficit could be as high as $66 million dollars.

Henry didn't say when or where the cuts might be made, but warned residents the red ink could cripple any effort to secure new funding for the cash strapped Senator Theatre.

My comments:

Interesting response to the political will shown to save The Senator by the hundreds of people that showed up at the town hall meeting on Monday night and gave Tom Kiefaber a standing ovation. Is our city government actually TRYING to be unpopular?

It's time for me to share the remarks I had written prior to Monday's town hall. I wanted to make these points at the meeting, but there simply wasn't time.

My prepared remarks:

When I first moved to Baltimore, I chose this neighborhood in part because I instantly fell in love with The Senator. When a town hall here in January made it clear The Senator would be closing imminently, I wanted to help. Since then, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to research the situation here. I’ve found there’s a story that’s not being told in the media. As a writer, I want to tell that story.

Most people in Baltimore seem to think our city government has put a lot of money into this beautiful place, The Senator Theatre. The truth is, the city hasn’t put a dime into this place to keep it going in the past decade.

In the press, city officials like to talk about a $600,000 loan guarantee they put on The Senator’s mortgage with 1st Mariner Bank. They talk about this as if it were money they put into The Senator, but it’s not. The city will only have to actually pay out that money if Tom Kiefaber can’t pay back the loan after a likely bankruptcy court proceeding can’t squeeze any more blood from his family.

The city also likes to talk about the $320,000 they MIGHT put into paying off part of Kiefaber’s loan so that he could keep his house, IF the city determines that its conditions have been met. City officials usually sound as if they’ve already spent this money too.

The truth is, the city hasn’t put a dime into helping The Senator keep the doors open in the past ten years. Let that one sink in.

All these city officials misleading the public about all the money they’ve supposedly spent on this cherished landmark remind me of a guy who put ten cents in the red bucket at Christmas time, then wore a t-shirt that said “I support the Salvation Army” for the rest of the year.

The Book of Matthew in the Bible says “But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In Baltimore City’s case, the left hand knows what the right hand might do long before the right hand actually does it, and the left hand is happy to proclaim the right hand’s good deeds as if they had already happened, too.

On the right side of the street, however, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand already did. The City and State poured millions in grants into private enterprise at Belvedere Square, and they don’t want you to know about that. One of the reasons they don’t want you to know is because it smacks of favoritism. Why hasn’t the City similarly helped the beloved landmark Senator Theatre?

I also found out in my research that this neighborhood fought a big battle with the City ten years ago over Belvedere Square’s redevelopment. The City wanted to tear down a bunch of houses and put in Big Box Chain Stores. The neighborhood fought them and Tom Kiefaber sided with the neighborhood.

Right now, it looks like the City is going to let The Senator go to foreclosure auction so they can clear the debt from the property, saddle Tom’s family with the debt, and probably let one of their favorite developers scoop up the property debt free. If The Senator falls into the wrong developer’s hands, I think it’s likely to become the anchor business (or possibly the anchor non-profit) in Big Box Belvedere Mall Part II, The Sequel.

The Senator and this neighborhood deserve so much better than this. This beautiful place should be the area’s premiere multi-purpose entertainment venue, with a variety of events to showcase the many talented artists in the area, educate children, present high quality films, and continue to serve the community as a good neighbor like The Senator has always been. Make no mistake. Tom Kiefaber is ready to hand it over to a new operator, but he’d like to make sure it’s going to continue to serve the best interests of the community in the future.

I wonder if people in this community know what a good neighbor The Senator has been over the years. Do people realize The Senator has raised millions of dollars for local charities? Do they realize The Senator makes an average of about 500 in-kind donations to local charities every year? Do they realize one of The Senator’s employees picks up the trash for a few blocks on York Road every single day?

If the City wanted to keep The Senator out of foreclosure, they could put up 10% of the money that was put into private enterprise at Belvedere Square and save The Senator right now. But they won’t do that. Instead, they are going to gamble with the future of The Senator and this neighborhood and let Tom’s family be ruined financially.

So let’s talk about Tom Kiefaber and his role in all this. This is all his fault because he’s a bad businessman, right? Wrong.

Until last night, The Senator was one of the only single-screen theatres in this country that was still operating as a for-profit business. The challenges of running a single-screen theatre as a first-run movie house are legion. Most similar theatres have closed or else they’re non-profits that receive a lot of help from government, corporate sponsors, and private donations. Tom Kiefaber has been doing something that’s nearly impossible every single day for the past 20 years.

Should Kiefaber have gotten out of the business before he got into all this debt? If he was only thinking about money, yes. But the truth is, he was thinking about something bigger than himself and his own bottom line. He was thinking about the quality of life in this community and preserving this wonderful place for future generations. Tom has made incredible sacrifices because he loves this community and this theatre. The man is a hero.

So what does Baltimore do for its hero who has saved The Senator Theatre for all of us? He gets beaten up daily in the press, reviled for his debts, and if he’s lucky, his family might not lose their home.

Well, I’m here to say Tom Kiefaber and his family deserve better than this. I also think our neighborhood deserves better than this, but the proof of that may be in whether we’re decent enough to stand up for someone who stood up for us in the past. This should be about solidarity with a valued member of our community.

As I was writing this, I thought about the movie Spartacus. There’s a certain point in that movie when a community won’t let a good man take any more abuse, and they step up to share his burden. When the Romans are looking for Spartacus to punish him, each man stands up in turn and says “I am Spartacus.” I hope that our community is good enough that, rather than let a good man be punished for his community-oriented values, we all stand up with him and say “I am Kiefaber.”

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