The long road to opening night
Civic leaders' bold strategy succeeded in raising millions for Hippodrome project, setting the stage for a renaissance on city's west side
In 1998, Gov. Parris N. Glendening toured the Hippodrome Theatre on Eutaw Street, which had been closed since 1990. The state appropriated $16.5 million for the project. (Sun file photo by Lloyd Fox / February 16, 1998)
The Hippodrome Theatre opens tonight after a $63 million restoration. Today's report details how the financing was obtained to bring the project to fruition.
With a vision in mind and a plan in hand, those seeking to make the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center a reality faced an obvious, yet daunting, challenge: money.
There was only one way to do it: form a partnership between the region and the state's public and private sectors. The strategists were Frank P. Bramble, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Committee, and Donald P. Hutchinson, the organization's president.
Their approach: Hutchinson would rely on his decade of experience in the Maryland General Assembly, while Bramble would work local corporations for contributions. "I knew we couldn't raise $65 million totally from the private sector," Bramble said.
Hutchinson added: "The GBC orchestrated the lobbying effort, and we just refused to quit. We knew the theater was essential for Baltimore. We knew it was going to be hard work. We knew it wasn't going to be an easy sell."
And it wasn't.
"It was a gutsy decision," said Nancy Roberts, a board member of Hippodrome Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that oversees the theater. "The Hippodrome didn't look like the most hospitable place for Broadway-style theater. It was gutsy for all the business and public leaders who endorsed this also. There was public money in it."
Bramble, former chairman of Allfirst Bank Inc. and now chairman and chief executive MBNA America Bank Corp. in Wilmington, Del., and Hutchison, now president and CEO of the Maryland division of SunTrust Banks Inc., began their respective tasks.
In the General Assembly, Hutchinson, who served in both houses, worked on several fronts -- garnering support from the Maryland Stadium Authority and its executive director, Bruce H. Hoffman, as well as the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, headed then by James T. Brady.
After that, Hutchinson sought the backing of three key people in Annapolis: Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore State Sen. Barbara Hoffman and Baltimore Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Rawlings died last November.
To get Glendening on board, the GBC requested $1.7 million in state money in January 1998 to begin planning for a Hippodrome restoration. The request also included a tour of the theater, which had been closed since 1990. That occurred on Feb. 16, 1998.
"We had set up temporary lighting, and we were concerned about creating a fire hazard," Bramble said. "We also were concerned about rats."
Added Glendening, now president of the Smart Growth Leadership Institute in Washington: "I did the walk-through, much to the nervousness of my security staff and some of the legislators who were with us. Parts of the floor were falling in, there were holes in the ceiling -- but you could see the exciting potential that was there."
Bramble also tested the Hippodrome's acoustics from the balcony with Glendening. He asked J. Michael Riley, who worked under him at Allfirst, to speak to the governor in his regular voice tone from the theater's stage. "We could hear each other as clear as a bell."
"It was a very important moment," Glendening said. The tour sealed the deal.
Lobbying state leaders
Hutchinson then turned to wooing Hoffman and Rawlings.
"At first, they were very skeptical," he said. "Hoffman was asking all the tough questions. She was the skeptic. She was the one we had to convince.