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

Friday, April 23, 2010

BDC Recommends Interior Demolition of Senator Theatre

In a move more or less predicted by this blog over a year ago, in March of 2009, the BDC yesterday recommended that the city hand The Senator Theatre over to James "Buzz" Cusack, operator of the Charles Theater. This was easy to see coming, as Mr. Cusack long ago expressed interest in taking over The Senator, and has been, through his seat on the city's CHAP commission and along with Robert C. "Bob" Embry of the Abell Foundation, part of the cabal that helped Baltimore City gain control of The Senator with CHAP's action last May to propose unprecedented interior controls on The Senator over the objections of then-owner Tom Kiefaber.

As this blog has documented, the proposed controls, which have not yet taken effect, since they were never passed by the city council, served to scare other private investors away from The Senator and limit bidding at the foreclosure auction on The Senator in July 2009. This enabled Baltimore City to acquire the theatre at a cut-rate price, far below its market value.

Cusack's proposal, recommended by the BDC yesterday, proposes interior demolition of original features of The Senator at taxpayer expense. Cusack proposes to knock holes in the walls of the iconic circular outer lobby and destroy the original ladies' and men's lounges and restrooms, turning the ladies lounge and restroom into a crepe restaurant.

Click the image below to view Mr. Cusack's interior demolition plan:

It is unclear whether this interior demolition would be prohibited by CHAP's proposed interior controls, but this question is currently an academic one, as those controls have yet to become legislation.

Mr. Cusack's plan calls for a long-term lease that amounts to an ownership interest in The Senator at $1 a year. He needs it to grant him an ownership interest in order to apply for historic tax credits. In other words, he is proposing that city taxpayer's $1 Million investment in The Senator be handed to him essentially for free. On top of that, he is also asking for city taxpayer funds amounting to $700,000. It should be noted that city officials took The Senator away from Tom Kiefaber based on the excuse that they didn't want to subsidize his business, but Mr. Cusack is already asking for more public subsidy from city taxpayers than Mr. Kiefaber ever received or ever even asked for.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Get A Clue (#3)

In the intrepid spirit of investigation, here is today's clue:

Clue #3: A tip I received claims that Robert "Bob" Embry wasn't alone at the recent pivotal meeting with Towson University President Robert Caret, which seems to have rapidly triggered TU's withdrawal of their superior Senator Theatre RFP. M.J. Brodie, the controversial President of the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC) was also reportedly present.

So, Baltimore's own mysterious "Dr. Evil" who pulls on the levers of power and control from Abell's penthouse lair in the sky, apparently hoisted a tiny pinky to his lips and took along his "BDC Mini Me" to the recent closed-door meeting with Towson President Caret. Hmmm.

It appears that Abell and the BDC intend to maintain their control over The Senator, which took over a decade to accomplish, as well as decide for themselves the outcome of Baltimore City taxpayers' ONE MEELLION DOLLAR investment. Things are headed that way now that TU has abruptly withdrawn its Senator RFP and departed the field. I hear, though, that angry business owners in the Belvedere Square commercial district are finally catching on to the big fix ahead. Stay tuned...

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 12, 2010

He Who Must Not Be Named

My new series, “Get A Clue,” has already sparked a number of varied responses from readers. A few responders have pointedly advised against the new endeavor as too provocative and possibly damaging. The warnings seem well-intentioned and sincere, but they don’t specify who or what may be damaged or why.

Some expressed a surprising level of fear and loathing towards the subject of these first two clues in the series. In Baltimore there seems to be a tacit taboo against broaching this particular subject. The scary subject that triggers the trembling isn’t the alarming proliferation of violent gangs in the city, the drug-related murders, rampant poverty, or Baltimore’s notorious culture of corruption.

No, the subject that elicits these fearful responses among my readers is a person: Mr. Robert C. Embry, the titular head of the Abell Foundation.

Who knew? Based on the surprising level of cautionary feedback received so far, Mr. Embry is a powerful “playa” who over time has surpassed Voldemort as “He Who Must Not Be Named,” unless it’s to heap unconditional honor and praise upon him and his accomplishments.

I scanned a series of fawning Sun articles on Robert C. Embry, and quickly got the message. This guy could journey from his high altitude perch at Abell’s luxurious aerie and stroll over to Federal Hill directly across the Inner Harbor without getting his socks wet, and probably raise a dead seagull along the way.

I’ve never met this reportedly strange, taciturn character who elicits such fearful reactions. It’s become obvious, though, that Embry’s role as president of The Abell Foundation grants him significant influence over Baltimore City government officials and surprising control over how our city and state function behind the scenes. There’s clearly a lot more to learn about this odd little man, whose range of emotions is said to run the gamut from A to B.

I appreciate those who are transmitting these fascinating insights and revelations regarding “Darth” Embry, the Byzantine netherworld of our city government, and the intense infighting taking place behind the scenes.

Regarding Baltimore’s tangled web of well-funded, non-profit foundations and entities, I concur with the concerns expressed over the degree to which Baltimore’s elected representatives and civil servants have abdicated their responsibilities, and handed over municipal power and control to these elusive and private non-government entities and individuals.

Among those in the know, the complicated back story of over a decade of efforts by Embry and others in positions of power downtown to gain control of The Senator Theatre is legendary, so when I got advance notice that Embry planned to meet with TU President Robert Caret, there was general consensus that this did not bode well for the Towson/WTMD proposal, and predictions among my associates that the meeting spelled the end of Towson’s bid for the theatre. The Godfather does not come to you, unless he’s going to make an offer you can’t refuse.

Thanks to the tipster who provided additional information supporting the significance of the meeting that took place between Robert Embry and the TU President. As predicted, the meeting appears to have played a pivotal role in the university’s abrupt withdrawal of their superior Senator RFP. The economic challenges cited have raised more eyebrows among insiders, whose reactions have corroborated claims that funding was not a credible reason to quickly torpedo the TU/WTMD RFP, following the closed-door meeting in question.

This all seems to jibe with a clarifying, off-the-record tip I just received regarding the recent meeting, which brings us to clue #3. Stay tuned.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Buzz Cusack Drinking Game

Hey all you drunken college students now trolling the Belvedere Square commercial district looking in vain for a geezer public radio station presenting a movie or concert! Here's a drinking game for you! Every time your favorite Uncle Buzzie says it’s difficult to operate a single-screen theatre, take a drink!

Multiscreen operation is the key to survival in the movie-theater business, Mr. Cusack said, a lesson he learned soon after he took over the Charles in 1994. Without the current expansion, his business would have failed, he said. "With one screen, you're putting all your eggs in one basket to carry the business,' he said. "You don't have a move-over house to shift a movie."

- The New York Times, March 1999

"The single-screen problem is a very serious problem," said Buzz Cusack, an owner of the Charles Theatre on North Charles Street. "Every time you pick a film, you have to pick it right, because the film companies require you to keep the movies for at least four weeks. And so if your film doesn't draw good crowds, you can really be hurt."

-Baltimore Sun, August 2000

“The Senator has a 900-seat theater, which is difficult to operate because it is a single-screen theater, Cusack said. There are only three or four movies a year that work for that theater and the rest of the time they are struggling to get people in the door.

-The Daily Record, June 2004

For his part, Cusack believes that Kiefaber’s harping about clearance is "just something for him to shift the focus from his problem," which is not about clearance, but about the challenge of keeping open a vestige of a bygone era of single-screen movie palaces.

-City Paper, July 2006

“It’s a difficult thing to open a single-screen theatre and make it work financially,” Cusack said.

-Baltimore Brew, July 2009

“We were losing money [at the Charles] as a one-screen theater. By expanding to five, the costs didn’t go up as much in proportion to revenue. It worked out,” said Cusack, whose proposal to buy the Senator Theatre and maintain it as a first-run movie venue — adding updated seating, a restaurant and crepe shop — is considered a top contender.

-Baltimore Busines Journal, February 2010

And for bonus points, guess how much public subsidy from city taxpayers Uncle Buzzie will need to operate The Senator as a single screen, and drink when you read this!

Cusack, of the Charles Theatre, predicted that the next [Senator] owner will have to pour money into the building, fixing a leaky roof, replacing seating and stucco on the exterior. "By the time you renovated it, you'd have the same [financial] problems Tom had," Cusack said, who added that $800,000 was well above what he could have afforded to pay.

-Baltimore Sun, July 2009 (immediately after The Senator auction)

Now that we're all drunk, we should give thanks to King Bob in case he maybe possibly single-handedly killed off the Towson University/WTMD proposal, because benevolent King Bob knows what's best for all of us! Why resort to representative democracy when we can have autocratic leader of a powerful foundation make decisions for us?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Get A Clue (#2)

In the intrepid spirit of investigation, here is today's clue:

Clue #2: Multiple sources close to Towson University report that the concern about finances that TU cited when they withdrew their RFP is a cover. The University had the money, and the BDC reportedly has the financial commitment papers to prove it. Can anyone confirm this?

Having seen the RFP proposals, I will note that it seems to me unlikely that anyone would put so much work into such a stunningly impressive proposal without knowing that the funds are available.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Friday, April 02, 2010

Get A Clue (#1)

Today's post starts off a new series on this blog, "Get A Clue."

While investigating the big puzzle that is the recent history of The Senator Theatre and all the back room intrigue that's been going on in various downtown circles and among various parties angling to control the theatre, there are often tidbits of information that seem significant, but their full significance has yet to be revealed. Therefore, I will post them as a series of brief clues. Eventually, they may tell us something.

I've also noted that, due to the complexity of the issue and the ongoing misrepresentation of it in the press, most people in Baltimore don't have a clue about what's going on with The Senator. As this series grows, they will now have lots of clues.

Occasionally a few of these clues may not prove to be exactly right, so if you have a tip for me or can clarify something, please let me know.

In the intrepid spirit of investigation, here is today's clue:

Clue #1: About a week before Towson University withdrew their proposal from contention in the Senator RFP process, a source notes that Robert C. Embry, President of the Abell Foundation, met with Towson University President Robert L. Caret.

Does this have anything to do with the fact that Towson withdrew their proposal a few days later? Was this another example of Mr. Embry's role as the infamous Mr. X?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, April 01, 2010

FOTS response to WTMD withdrawal from Senator RFP process

The following is the official Friends of The Senator statement that was sent out to members of the media yesterday, including the Baltimore Sun:

The Friends of The Senator (FOTS) group and historic theatre preservation organizations nationwide are aligned in their stance that the BDC’s Senator RFP process has been fundamentally flawed from its inception, and the situation must be rectified.

Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Theatre Historical Society of America, among others, have written to Mayor Rawlings-Blake, citing concern over the BDC’s failure to engage professional historic theatre redevelopment experts to play an active role in the advance planning and guidance of the Senator RFP redevelopment process.

Towson University’s withdrawal is sudden, but not entirely unexpected. With the BDC’s controversial Senator RFP process in a shambles, it’s time to heed the rising call for Baltimore City to apply proven national standards established by historic theatre redevelopment experts to determine an optimal future for Baltimore’s renowned and irreplaceable Senator Theatre.

Thomas Harris
President, FOTS

I would like to note that Chris Kaltenbach of the Sun, who was sent the whole statement, neglected to report that Friends of The Senator has been joined in our call for historic theatre redevelopment and film exhibition experts to guide the process by prestigious preservation organizations the Theatre Historical Society of America, Baltimore Heritage, Preservation Maryland, and The National Trust for Historic Preservation. When I commented on the Sun site last night to note the omission, the Sun pulled down the comment, along with all the other comments made yesterday, most of which were lamenting the loss of Towson University/WTMD's bid. Biased reporting or April Fool's joke on the Sun's part?

Labels: , , , , , , , ,