City takes over ownership of Senator

Baltimore City took ownership of the Senator Theatre after a brief and raucous auction Wednesday, and officials say they want to move forward quickly to develop a permanent plan for the 70-year-old landmark.

"The bottom line is, now it is in our hands," said Mayor Sheila Dixon. "We can move fast and aggressively to find the best, responsible business - be it profit or nonprofit - who can manage and handle this theater."

City leaders want the theater to continue to show films or to showcase the performing arts and now will look for someone to own or operate the Senator. At least two prominent local businessmen - developer David Cordish and the Charles Theatre's operator, James "Buzz" Cusack - said they might be interested in running the venue under the right conditions.

Wednesday's auction drew one anonymous bid, for $800,000, and the city, which has owned the financially troubled theater's mortgage since May, topped that by $10,000 to keep control of the theater.

First Deputy Mayor Andrew B. Frank said that this was "the outcome that we expected and hoped for," adding that the auction wiped out two other liens on the building and gave the city a clear title to the 900-seat theater.

Frank pledged that the city's efforts to find an owner or operator would be "a wide-open transparent process" that would "rebuild trust with the community and other stakeholders."

Uncertainty over the theater's future had created some tensions among the Senator's neighbors and supporters. City officials were criticized both for being overly aggressive in taking charge of the theater and for not doing enough to support it - often by the same people.

The former owner, Thomas Kiefaber, will be allowed to show films there until the city formally takes possession of the property in 60 to 90 days.

A crowd of several hundred, including actors who had appeared in movies screened at the Senator, gathered on the sidewalk below the theater's signature marquee to watch - and, in some cases, heckle - the sale. The marquee announced the auction in all capital letters as if it were a Hollywood blockbuster and promised "free beer."

Only four bidders arrived with the $50,000 required to participate in the auction, according to a city attorney. Auction officials would not confirm the number of registered bidders.

Despite several protests and disruptions, the sale began on schedule at 11 a.m., and auctioneer Paul Cooper set the opening price at $750,000. A staff member of the auction house, acting on behalf of an anonymous bidder, offered $800,000.

The proceedings paused briefly while representatives from the city's law department and the Baltimore Development Corp. huddled and then, when the auction resumed, counter-offered $810,000. Nobody bid higher.

Supporters of the former owner immediately cried foul, claiming the auction was "rigged" to suit the city's purposes and oust Kiefaber from the theater that his family has owned for decades. Kiefaber had initially supported the city's decision to take over the Senator's mortgage in a deal that allowed him to keep his Baltimore County house, which had been offered as collateral for the theater mortgage.

But on Wednesday morning, Kiefaber complained bitterly, starting a verbal fight with the auctioneers over the location of the sale and threatening to contest the legality of the auction.

He had hoped the proceedings would take place in the 900-seat auditorium, where he had set up a rostrum adorned with a giant frowning mask. Using a bullhorn, he yelled: "Let's please go inside the theater and sit down and chill out a bit. Let's go inside. Let's go inside the beautiful theater." But when the auctioneer began the proceedings, even Kiefaber came outside for them.

Emotions ran high. One of Kiefaber's supporters, Gayle Grove, wore a mask and red cape to illustrate her belief that the proceedings were a "circus." Another, Dan Keplinger, who uses a wheelchair and was the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary King Gimp, was pushed up to front of the crowd and screamed his displeasure at Joe Cooper, the head of the auction house.

Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt was also disappointed by the result, but for different reasons. She warned that the city should have "cut its losses" and sold the theater for $800,000 to the sole bidder.

"They should have let them have it," Pratt said. "We know that the city does not have funds to operate, maintain and retrofit a movie theater. The city of Baltimore should not be in the business of owning movie theaters."

The city's already lean budget is expected to take another hit, with Dixon asking all of her agency heads to identify 5 percent cuts from their spending plans. Kimberly Clark, an executive vice president at the Baltimore Development Corp., said that the city will likely have to spend more money to make capital improvements to fix the theater, though she will not know how much more until the city can properly assess the building.

Cusack, of the Charles Theatre, predicted that the next owner will have to pour money into the building, fixing a leaky roof, replacing seating and stucco on the exterior. "By the time you renovated it, you'd have the same [financial] problems Tom had," Cusack said, who added that $800,000 was well above what he could have afforded to pay.

Baltimore became financially involved with the theater in 2002 when the city guaranteed half of a $1.2 million loan extended to Kiefaber by 1st Mariner Bank. Kiefaber defaulted on that loan this year. Faced with losing the $600,000 that the city guaranteed, Dixon decided instead to purchase the mortgage for $950,000. City officials said they would not sell the theater for less than that.

The state and a law firm also had liens on the property, but Wednesday's auction wiped the debts from the property title, Frank said. The city will not take possession until the sale is ratified, a process that can take between 60 to 90 days.

Several bidders said they came to the auction to demonstrate their interest in running the theater but did not have serious intentions to buy it at the sale. Edward L. Dopkin, who registered as a bidder and owns a catering business and several restaurants on Cold Spring Lane in Roland Park, said his partner would "disown him" if he bought the theater. He added that the limited parking and other restrictions on using the building made him hesitant. "There were a lot of 'what if's,' " he said.

Movie-goers typically park at a lot across the street owned by David Cordish, and continued access to it is not guaranteed unless the building is used as a theater.

Cordish, who was in Korea on a business trip, said in an e-mail that he would be interested in operating the theater as a nonprofit. "Under these conditions, we would run the theater as a public service or trust," Cordish wrote.

Another registered bidder, Nick G. Contis, a real estate developer from Harford County, said the theater is "screaming for a nonprofit environment."

He recently purchased the State Theatre in Havre de Grace, a 1920 movie house that was constructed by Kiefaber's maternal grandfather, and said his plans for the Senator would include using the space as a performing arts venue.

Several officials came from nearby Loyola College, though they declined to give their names. The college leadership had said they might bid but they did not, said Courtney Jolley, a spokeswoman. Jolley said they will consider responding to the request for proposals, or RFP, that the city plans to issue seeking potential owners or operators.

Clark, of the BDC, believes it will take roughly six months to review and award such a request. She added that she has already circulated a draft RFP among some community leaders to get their input.