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Senator may be going, going, gone

The Senator Theatre's bank has notified the city and the owner of the historic movie house that it intends to foreclose on the property. The North Baltimore landmark could stop showing films as early as next week and be sold at auction next month.

Owner Tom Kiefaber had been in talks with the city to turn the long-struggling theater into a nonprofit community center that would offer a range of activities beyond movies. But in a letter dated March 6, 1st Mariner Bank informed Kiefaber of its intent to foreclose, potentially derailing the nonprofit plan.

"We're day to day at this point but intend to stay open for business as long as possible," Kiefaber said. "I can't see us staying afloat much longer short of something unexpected occurring in the next week or so to change this situation for the better."1st Mariner Bank officials could not be reached for comment today.

Deputy Mayor Andrew Frank, who had helped put the deal from the city together, said that he was given a mid-April date for auction. He said the city's offer is still on the table, but the tough economy has made it hard to come up with a viable plan of survival, even as a nonprofit. Revenues still need to cover expenses, including debt.

"Although the challenges are more difficult than we imagined originally, our goal of finding a pathway to preserve the Senator as a first-run movie theater remains unchanged," he said. "We were under no illusions that this would be easy. We will continue to explore all options with those who share our interest to keep the theater open."

Sean Brescia, a representative for Kiefaber, said he expects the auction to happen in the next three to six weeks, after the bank has time to advertise and find potential buyers. An event planner with Clearpath Management, Brescia has volunteered to help facilitate talks with stakeholders in the theater.

He said the bank had recently indicated that it would allow the theater time to come up with a plan to run the Senator as a community center and gain the proper government tax-exempt status, but changed course in recent days. He and Frank didn't know why the bank, which could foreclose at any time, would do it now.

The bank has backed off in the past from foreclosure proceedings after infusions of money were obtained from the city and private sources.

City Councilman Bill Henry, who has also been working to preserve the theater, said the bank recently obtained court permission to foreclose. And Kiefaber has not provided the city with enough information yet to move forward with the transition to nonprofit.

Experts in nonprofits have said the transition is a large task and running them isn't any easier than for-profit businesses.Brescia said the short auction time-frame will make it difficult for the Senator's community of supporters to complete that difficult plan or come up with enough money to outbid a corporate interest on the property.

The Senator currently owes more than $900,000 to the bank. Brescia estimated that it could sell at auction for a few hundred thousand dollars. The bank is also likely to take other property that had been used as collateral, including Kiefaber's house.

The one-screen Senator has been in Kiefaber's family for decades and has been the site of many star-studded movie openings and events. But Kiefaber has been unable to keep the theater going, even as moviegoing has stepped up in general.

The city stepped forward in January with the proposal to turn the theater into a nonprofit community center, if Kiefaber was willing to give up day-to-day control, which he indicated he would.

Brescia said foreclosure would bring an uncertain future to the theater, and he and others have planned a town hall-style meeting March 16 at 7 p.m. to see if there is a will, and possibly money, to save the place. They have invited city and state officials and anyone else who has an interest in the theater.

He said Kiefaber was caught off guard by the bank's move, but said officials had been amicable during the process and understands they are within their rights.

Brescia wouldn't speculate on whether there was a private buyer waiting in the wings to bid on the theater."This [meeting] may be something of a Hail Mary pass," Brescia said. "But it's just devastating to think of it going to auction."

Sun reporter Michael Sragow contributed to this article.

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