City sells Senator Theatre at $310,000 loss

Baltimore's spending panel agreed Wednesday to sell the historic Senator Theatre at a $310,000 loss — over the objections of the city's comptroller.

"I just think it's too generous," said Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, citing the city's purchase of the theater at an auction in 2009 for $810,000 and the selling price of $500,000.

The Board of Estimates approved the sale to the Senator's current operators by 4-1 vote. Pratt cast the lone "no" vote.

Senator Theatre LLC, a company controlled by James "Buzz" Cusack and his daughter, Kathleen Lyon, has leased the theater from the city since August 2010. The city bought the Senator a year earlier, as it was nearing foreclosure, then selected Cusack and Lyon to run it.

Under the terms of the deal, Senator Theatre LLC will repay a half-million-dollar, 2 percent fixed-rate mortgage to the city over 40 years. The city is also lending Senator Theatre LLC $700,000, and the state is offering a $560,000 loan. The company also has a $350,000 loan from M&T; Bank.

"We are pleased and excited to move forward," said Lyon, who pointed out that the property is assessed for just $350,000. She said she and her father have put nearly $1 million into the project — and recently secured a deal with a nearby location to provide 70 parking spaces for the theater.

The project is relying on a Maryland Community Legacy grant of $425,000, a facade construction grant of $6,000 and state and federal historic tax credits that amount to about $400,000. Bank loans will cover the amount of the tax credits until they are received by the developer. If the Cusack-Lyon company spends $2.8 million on capital improvements within 18 months, $100,000 of the city's loan will be forgiven.

"This is a historic landmark that needs to continue to be a viable cultural icon for the city," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said after the vote. "The Cusacks have a plan that will make that happen. The Senator has languished under the previous ownership. I'm confident they're going to be able to get the job done and make the Senator once again the center and the real foundation and the real lifeblood of that community again."

The mayor said she was not concerned with competition from a planned 16-screen movie complex that Cordish Cos. is building in Towson. That theater is slated to open in 2014.

"They're not building a Senator up there," she said. "They're building a multiplex. The Senator has character all of its own. People have moved into the community because they loved it."

The Senator is undergoing extensive renovations that began in late April. The improvements will add three auditoriums with stadium-style seating and a cafe to the movie house. The renovations are projected to cost about $3 million.

The Baltimore Development Corporation's acting president, Kimberly A. Clark, told board members that the city always intended to hold on to the theater only temporarily.

"The city obtained ownership of the property and, ever since then, has been trying to get it back in private hands," she said. "We feel that it is in the best interest of the city to convey this property to the Cusacks. They have a lot of history with movie operations, and we feel they can make it again a viable part of the community."

At the meeting, the Senator's previous owner, Tom Kiefaber, and community activist Kim Trueheart spoke out against the plan.

Trueheart called it a "bad deal" for the citizens of Baltimore. Kiefaber said the sale had not been properly vetted by the public.