Group poised to give Hippodrome grant


A Towson foundation is poised to make a key $5 million grant for the restoration of the 2,240-seat Hippodrome Theater, an important part of the city's effort to revive downtown's long-struggling west side, sources said.

Community leaders say the donation by the France-Merrick Foundation would provide critical funding and erase doubts about whether the curtain will rise again at the shuttered 87-year-old landmark at 12 N. Eutaw St.

"It makes the thing," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which has committed about $2.5 million toward the project. "They're lifesavers, real heroes. ... If they're able to follow through, they will save the day."

Of the project's $56 million cost - a shared public-private expense - at least $7.5 million has to be raised privately before construction can begin, and this donation would reach that threshold.

Foundation leaders said they have not finalized their commitment because they are waiting to make sure the project's financing plan is in place. "It's a complicated project," said Walter D. Pinkard Jr., France-Merrick's vice president.

Nevertheless, Pinkard said he is "hopeful" the gift would be made. "Our feeling is this is an important building block in the whole west side," Pinkard said. "The foundation has an interest in art and culture and an interest in community development. This project hits at the nexus of both of those areas of interest."

He would not confirm the amount, and Greater Baltimore Committee President Donald P. Hutchinson, who is leading the private fund-raising effort, declined to comment. However, sources familiar with the foundation's plans said the amount is $5 million.

Backers of the Hippodrome project, for which $33 million in public money has been committed, say the theater would hold Broadway-style shows and make the west side a more appealing place to live and visit. A fall 2003 opening is planned.

News of France-Merrick's involvement with the theater restoration comes as west-side boosters want to give the public proof of progress after much talk.

The former Hecht Co. department store at Howard and Lexington streets will soon open as 173 market-rate apartments, and smaller residential conversions have begun.

But there has been little visible progress on what some call the linchpin - Bank of America's proposed $60 million Centerpoint residential and retail development. It would occupy a city block bounded by Howard and Eutaw streets and by Fayette and Baltimore streets.

Sources familiar with foundation negotiations say France-Merrick would not give to the Hippodrome unless Centerpoint, across Eutaw Street from the theater, moves ahead. Bank of America said that despite delays, work on Centerpoint will begin by November on a 17-story residential tower.

The bank expects to benefit from the Hippodrome. "It'd be wonderful to have this great venue that has 400,000 patrons a year walking past the front door of Centerpoint," said Maria Johnson, senior vice president.

Opened in 1914 as a vaudeville house, the theater has a storied history, with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman gracing its stage. It closed in 1989 after years of decline.

Business leaders saw potential in the Hippodrome and in 1998 asked the state for money. Since then the General Assembly has approved $16.5 million and authorized $10 million in bonds. Baltimore has pledged $6 million, and Baltimore County $500,000.

The organizers of the private fund-raising campaign have set a goal of $14.5 million, including the $7.5 million threshold amount.

Other private interests have said they would contribute. Among them is Legg-Mason Inc., though it will not publicly say how much. Two other pieces remain to be put in place: an $8 million investment by a private theater operator, and the sale of $8 million in historic preservation tax credits to companies seeking tax write-offs.

Robert Boras, project manager for the Maryland Stadium Authority, which is overseeing construction, said he foresees no problem with either component and expects work to start in November.

The renovations are ambitious: The area housing the stage, along with a building south of the theater, are to be demolished to make way for a bigger stage house. In addition, two former bank buildings to the north will be renovated and used for receptions.

A gift such as the one France-Merrick hopes to make "would be both generous and very important to moving the project along," said Ronald M. Kreitner, executive director of WestSide Renaissance Inc., a business group.

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