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The long road to opening night

Last of two parts.

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.

"We knew that if we convinced her, that all the arguments against it would have been answered in her mind," Hutchinson added. "By doing that, we were able to, in effect, answer all the questions that anyone in the [General Assembly] was ever going to ask us."

Both legislators wanted a program for developing the neighborhoods surrounding the Hippodrome, Hoffman said.

"They didn't have a plan," she said. "If all you were going to do was develop the theater, it would fail. I just asked them, 'Where is your business plan?' That forced the whole group to think about it."

The plan arose from the activity taking shape on the west side of downtown. The University of Maryland-Baltimore was moving forward with a broad expansion plan that included a new dental school, law school, school of nursing, health-sciences library, as well as an expansion of the medical school.

The total value of these projects was more than $200 million. The Hippodrome had been gifted to UMB in 1997.

"It just seemed to me that, as the neighborhood rehabilitated itself, the Hippodrome could, in fact, be reborn," said UMB President Dr. David J. Ramsay. "It couldn't have happened unless the neighborhood developed."

But by early 1999, the redevelopment effort began to stall. "For a period of a few months, there was a slight loss of faith," Dr. Ramsay said. "The big investors really had to be convinced that this was going to happen."

The malaise also concerned John Morton III of Bank of America Corp.

"When a project like this doesn't have credibility, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: No credibility creates doubt, and doubt leads to no investment," said Morton, president of BOA's mid-Atlantic operations at the time. BOA put up $100 million and since has increased its support to $125 million.

The focal point of BOA's effort is the $80 million Centerpoint project. The 17-story development, to be located at North Howard and West Fayette streets, encompasses nine historic buildings. It will include 392 luxury apartments, more than 35,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space and 415 parking spaces. Centerpoint is expected to create 125 long-term jobs, and pre-leasing begins next month.

"West-side redevelopment has exceeded our most optimistic expectations," said Morton, now president of BOA's premier banking operations.

This activity enabled Hutchinson to step up efforts to win support in Annapolis, particularly with the lobbying assistance of Diane Hutchins, who served as the organization's vice president.

The legislature approved Glendening's $1.7 million capital budget request. It was the first of three appropriations over as many years totaling $16.5 million. The Hippodrome project also received $6.3 million in federal tax credits that resulted from BOA's redevelopment activities. In addition, $17.4 million in stadium authority bonds were sold for the project.

"To sit down and create a strategy -- and to implement that strategy, there's nothing more satisfying for a person who works in public policy," Hutchinson said.

'Instant credibility'

By the fall of 2001, garnering support from the region's private contributors had become tougher -- even though a $1 million gift from Allfirst had helped raise as much as $4.7 million.

"There was a lull," Roberts said. "It was a very difficult project to get funding for.

"It goes back to the visual," she explained. "What [potential contributors] saw was an area that had fallen into great disrepair, sort of derelict. People had trouble envisioning not only paying customers, but customers who would be paying top dollar for some of the top shows ever. It was a hard connection to establish."

So Roberts undertook her own campaign, personally lobbying Walter D. Pinkard Jr., chairman and CEO of the Colliers Pinkard real estate firm and vice president of the France-Merrick Foundation.

"Nancy came to me and said, 'Listen, I need to show you how far this has come,' " Pinkard said. "It's time for a major gift."

The foundation contributed $5 million. As the project's largest private donor, it named the complex the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center. The gift jump-started the fund-raising process.

"The France-Merrick gift gave instant credibility to the project," Roberts said. "I don't want to discount the early support, but we turned a corner with the France-Merrick grant."

Baltimore City also pledged $6 million over three years. Baltimore County, which Hutchinson once served as county executive, committed $500,000.

"This is a prescription for a successful project," Pinkard said. "Baltimore doesn't have the deep-pocket corporate base to do this by itself, so the fact that the [foundations] were there says an enormous amount."

Construction on the Hippodrome began in October 2002 in ceremonies featuring the cast of the musical 42nd Street and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. The meticulous restoration effort, headed up by architect Hugh Hardy of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates in New York, included a ceiling mural, a half-dozen balconies -- as well as the demolition of three storefronts to allow for the construction of a deep stage needed by today's more elaborate Broadway-style shows.

In addition, the incorporation of two historic bank buildings, the Western National Bank and the Eutaw Savings Bank, allowed for a larger lobby and a 450-seat private banquet room. The development also includes a new stage house and a loading dock off Baltimore Street, as well as a direct link to a 975-car parking garage owned by UMB.

Stewardship for community

The Hippodrome is a joint venture between the stadium authority, the Hippodrome Foundation and Clear Channel Communications Inc., which contributed $8 million early in the process. Under an operating agreement, deficits will be absorbed by Clear Channel, while profits with be shared with the Hippodrome Foundation.

"We have a first-class operator who can deliver because the venue allows it," said Bramble, who stepped back from the project after the France-Merrick contribution. "Because they have the contacts, they can deliver the very best in Broadway-style theater to the citizens of Baltimore and the state of Maryland."

The agreement also frees up the Hippodrome Foundation to concentrate on its "stewardship responsibility," said Pinkard, also a foundation board member.

"It includes working with Clear Channel, working with city on west side redevelopment," he said. "It includes working on affordable tickets, so that this is not just a theater for those who can afford a subscription.

"We will make this Broadway theater available to a wider audience than just those who have the capacity to write a check," he said. "We're going to make sure that others can be there."

This also includes developing educational programs, Pinkard added.

"The foundation can focus on figuring out ways to get the community, particularly the young people, interested in the arts," he said. "We believe this venue is so attractive that we can get producers, directors and Broadway stars to come in and talk to our young people."

The Hippodrome Foundation is headed up by Eric P. Grubman, its chairman, and Mark Sissman, its president and chief executive.

Excitement, accomplishment

The curtain goes up at the Hippodrome Theatre at 8 tonight. Guests will "walk the red carpet" and experience the Baltimore premiere of The Producers, the Mel Brooks musical that won a record-breaking 12 Tony Awards. A buffet dinner and dessert reception are also featured.

There's much anticipation.

"It's exciting," Roberts said. "To touch it, to see it, to look all around and see everything that's going on is very exciting. It's just very exciting."

And there's a great sense of accomplishment.

"It shows that the Baltimore business community is effective," said Hutchinson, another Hippodrome Foundation board member. "It's also effective in ways that do not benefit any single business entity.

"This project was not going to have any direct financial benefit to any single business entity -- and the business community wanted to move forward with it because it knew it had a broader role to play in the development of this town."

Added Glendening: "Public money is a catalyst only. The fact that the private sector was there, strongly telling us that they would use our catalyst to put up their own capital, made this project work. They lived up to their word."

"Everyone is a part of it," said Riley, now a vice president at M&T Bank Corp. "It's not just the business community, not just the city, the state, the county or the philanthropic community -- or tax credits. It all worked, and the Hippodrome will be incredible for the economic development of the city and for improving the quality of life in the community."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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