Almost a year after he endorsed the restoration of Baltimore's Hippodrome Theater, Gov. Parris N. Glendening is withholding planning funds, casting a cloud over the city's ambitious plans to revitalize the west side of its downtown.
The governor did not include money in his capital budget for converting the Hippodrome into a performing arts center, noting concerns about rising costs and about the feasibility of the city's plans for redeveloping surrounding properties.
But he held out hope in an interview yesterday that he might give the theater project money this year if city officials can satisfy his concerns. "There are still a lot of unanswered questions," Glendening said.
The project has been identified as the centerpiece of the city's $350 million plan for revitalizing an 18-block area between Charles Center and the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus.
Glendening provided $1.7 million to begin design work after touring the theater in February. City officials and business leaders had hoped that the governor would include $1.8 million in his capital budget, which was released this week, to finish the planning.
Glendening's press secretary, Ray Feldmann, said the governor was troubled by the rising estimates of the cost of restoring the once-majestic theater, which grew from $35 million last February to $53 million this month. He also is worried that plans are incomplete for improving the rundown neighborhood around the Hippodrome.
"The governor would like to see something a little more firm, a little more on paper -- with some time lines and deadlines -- of how the city intends to revitalize that area," Feldmann said.
Glendening's decision to withhold funds for the Hippodrome drew support from the heads of the General Assembly's two money committees.
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said his panel's members were dismayed by the shabby conditions around the theater when they toured it last year.
"Right outside our bus when we got off were a lot of derelicts lying on the steps of the bank not far away," said Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat. "There were boarded-up and partially used buildings which was not the type of environment that's going to attract citizens to spend their money to attend the theater."
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and also a Baltimore Democrat, said, "The Hippodrome is a gorgeous theater, but before I would be happy about spending a lot of money there, I would like to see west-side redevelopment [in the block] that faces the Hippodrome."
Supporters said they hope to persuade state leaders to provide funding before the General Assembly adjourns in April. "We're not taken aback by any of this at this point," said Eli Eisenberg, Hippodrome project manager for the Maryland Stadium Authority, which is handling the theater restoration project. "We knew nothing was a done deal."
The authority hopes to get $25 million from the state next year toward construction and the rest from city and private sources.
Awaiting City Council action
M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., acknowledged that plans to revitalize downtown's west side have not been fleshed out, but he said they are moving forward.
The city Planning Commission is scheduled to review a bill Thursday that would give Brodie's nonprofit agency the power to buy or condemn properties in the area, and Brodie said he hopes the bill will be approved by the City Council in March. "Until the City Council acts, we can't supply a precise timetable," Brodie said. He suggested he could begin acquiring property this year and perhaps begin construction.
Diane Hutchins, director of governmental relations for the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group committed to the west-side renewal, said supporters of the Hippodrome project will ask the General Assembly to authorize a state bond to continue the project if the governor does not include it in his final supplemental budget in March.
Any delay in rehabilitating the Hippodrome would be a setback to the city's plans for revitalizing the west side of downtown and bringing more people to the city, according to business leaders and others who support the project and have been counting on proceeding with it.
"We see the Hippodrome as providing an opportunity to keep Broadway shows in downtown Baltimore and provide a beautiful, restored, historic setting for additional entertainment" downtown, said Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Downtown Partnership, which promotes business and tourism.
"We also see the Hippodrome as playing a catalyst role in the redevelopment of the west side, although not exclusively," Schwartz said. "There are many development projects under way. To us, this is a critical one."
David Stein, director of property development for the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, which controls many properties downtown, agreed that the Hippodrome is a key to revitalization of downtown's west side.
He noted that many projects are in the works or under way that show the city is moving aggressively with plans to transform the area around the Hippodrome, including a 160-unit apartment tower being built at Eutaw and Redwood Streets, a block from the theater property.
Sun staff writers Gerard Shields and Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 1/30/99