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Spotlighters Theatre calls off plan to relocate to former Read's Drugstore

Spotlighters Theatre calls off plan to relocate to former Read's Drugstore
The former Read's Drugstore at Howard and Lexington streets. (Kim Hairston)

After exploring a tantalizing prospect for a new home in the former Read's Drugstore on the west side of town at Howard and Lexington streets, the Mount Vernon-based Spotlighters Theatre has called off the effort.

The Read's proposal, which won the backing of the Baltimore Development Corporation and the Mayor's Office, envisioned an $11 million, 21,300-square-foot arts center.

"We jumped ahead of ourselves with the proposal," said James "Fuzz" Roark, Spotlighters' executive/managing/artistic director. "A feasibility study by the Arts Consulting Group in Washington determined that we do not have a large enough public footprint to undertake such an expensive project. That building can't be used until you spend several million dollars on it."

In addition to a 120-seat theater, the Read's project called for a separate black box theater, community center and exhibition space.

The store's contribution to civil rights history in Baltimore was to have been acknowledged with a replica of the lunch counter where Morgan State University students staged a sit-in to protest segregation in 1955.

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The pace of revitalization on the city's west side became a factor in the theater company's decision to step back from the idea of moving into Read's.

"The board was concerned that there aren't more properties under bid [for renovation] on that block," Roark said. "We didn't want to end up being by ourselves for two years. We had to consider if our public would follow us there and feel safe."

The lease on Spotlighters' 65-seat theater-in-the-round on St. Paul Street, home base since 1962, expires in December 2019.

"We may be able to stay here a little longer until we can move to a bigger and better space," Roark said.

Meanwhile, Roark, the only full-time salaried staff member at Spotlighters, is taking up a recommendation of the consulting company to seek grants to fund the hiring of a full-time development/marketing staffer.

"I hope we can have someone in place by May or June to redevelop our individual gift-giving program and network with foundations and corporations that can be lead donors in a capital campaign," he said. "We need to ramp up our public image."

Spotlighters, which has an annual budget of $189,000, puts on at least eight productions a season, and also offers educational outreach programs held at the theater and at local schools throughout the year.

Rather than purchase a building that needs extensive renovation to be transformed into the theater-in-the-round space that Spotlighters favors, the company is looking into venues that could be more quickly adapted and cost less to purchase. One property under consideration is near the Beltway on the southwest side.

"But we really want to stay in Mount Vernon, if possible," Roark said.

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