Senator Theatre still awaiting word on historic tax credits

Operators of the Senator Theatre were waiting anxiously this week to hear whether they will be awarded state historic tax credits for their planned $3 million expansion and renovation of the landmark 1939 Art Deco cinema house.

They did not make the cut last year, but are optimistic now because of favorable reaction from state preservation officials to modified plans for the theater, said Kathleen Cusack, who operates the theater at 5904 York Road with her father, James "Buzz" Cusack.

The tax credits would mean significant cost saving to the Cusacks.

"We need it," Kathleen Cusack said. "If we get it, we'll be all set."

The governor's office will send letters to applicants who will be awarded the tax credits, and the Maryland Historical Trust, under the state Department of Planning, will send letters to applicants who are denied.

The planning department sent word to the trust last week that an official announcement was expected "very soon," but no announcement had been made as of Tuesday.

The announcements of each year's winners usually come in December. Last year's letters came in mid-December. At that time, there were 36 applicants and 10 winners, and the single-screen Senator was not recommended to receive historic tax credits, said Maryland Historical Trust Director J. Rodney Little. He said there was nothing wrong with last year's application, but that it got "squeezed out," and might not have been as well written as those that were approved.

The trust takes into account how bad the condition is of the building for which tax credits are being sought, Little said last year.

Buzz Cusack had said last year that the building was structurally sound.

Last year's denial was seen as a blow to the Cusacks' plans to add a second screening auditorium and a restaurant. But those plans have since changed. The Cusacks announced March 19 that they were dropping plans for a tapas-style restaurant and instead planned to add three screening rooms, not one more as they had first intended. That would bring the number of screens at the historic theater to four.

They also had planned to add a wine bar and a creperie, they told an audience of 40 people during a public meeting at the theater. But the creperie, Sofi's Crepes, has opened across the street in Belvedere Square.

There were rumors at the time that the restaurant originally planned for an expanded Senator would move into the Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Remembered across the street from the theater. But that space is now the Belvedere Veterinary Center, an animal hospital.

Kathleen Cusack said at the time that she and her father decided to scrap plans for a restaurant in the Senator because, "It puts a lot of pressure on the restaurant to perform."

And she said the thinking in the theater industry is that theaters are more desirable, partly because it allows operators to stagger the openings of first-run movies.

James Cusack said that from a building perspective, "it might be more interesting to have a restaurant here. But it might not be as profitable."

The Cusacks at the time vowed to reapply for state historic tax credits to do more restoration detail work on the theater.

"If we can get the tax credits, we can do more of a conservation effort," Buzz Cusack said.

Now, the Cusacks are feeling better about their prospects.

"We're optimistic," Kathleen Cusack said last week. She said the Senator has already been deemed eligible for federal tax credits from the Department of the Interior, and that since plans for the project changed, "We got some good feedback from (state officials) along the way."

The theater's previous longtime owner, Tom Kiefaber, lost it to foreclosure in 2009 when it was sold to Baltimore City government at auction for $800,000. The city leased the building for $1 to the Cusacks, who reopened it in October 2010 and show first-run movies there.

Kiefaber, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council president this year, has complained publicly in email blasts in recent weeks on behalf of the advocacy groups Friends of the Senator about what he called in one email the "currently degraded, blighted exterior appearance of the Senator lighting, as well as the accumulated graffiti and overgrown landscaping."

But he added, "There is no intention to be confrontational with the theatre operators, or comment on the manner in which the theatre is being run, beyond the issues regarding the exterior appearance."

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