Work on Hippodrome could stall until private funds are guaranteed


The $56 million Hippodrome Theater restoration is at a crucial point, with the Maryland Stadium Authority saying major demolition and construction will not occur until private fund raising is finalized.

The anticipated completion date of September next year has been changed to December, and even that date is not firm. As a result, what is envisioned as a glittering showcase of the West Side's hoped-for renewal likely will miss the fall start of the theater season.

The man in charge of fund raising said the finances will be in place soon, and the authority's Hippodrome project manager said he, too, is optimistic.

But until $23.5 million in private money is in hand or guaranteed in writing, the authority says, it will not spend much more of the $32.5 million in public -- mostly state -- dollars. Part of that sum will come from the sale of $10 million in state bonds, and state law forbids that sale until private funds are guaranteed; the authority has set a deadline of March 1.

"We're getting closer to the point where we either have to move forward or shut things down," said authority Project Director Robert M. Boras. So far, he said, contractors have removed seats and gutted the 88-year-old building at 12 N. Eutaw St.

Mark Sissman, who is leading the fund raising, said the complicated job of lining up private dollars should conclude in the next month or two. "I don't think there is any 'if,'" said Sissman, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, the nonprofit group coordinating the public-private effort with the stadium authority.

But Sissman acknowledged the urgency. Clear Channel Entertainment, the company that will run the theater and book touring companies of Broadway shows, is eager to line up hits such as The Producers and Mamma Mia.

"We're all under the gun to get agreements done, money in place, so they can begin booking shows," he said. He and Clear Channel executives have talked of opening the theater as late as January 2004.

Unlike the smaller Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center is considered more than a venue that can accommodate large touring productions. Public officials and business leaders are counting on it to make the west side a more appealing place to visit and live.

A nearby project -- Centerpoint, Bank of America's 383-unit residential and retail complex -- is viewed similarly. Bank officials said work should begin next month on the first phase, with 74 apartment units and shops opening in a year.

From the street, progress seems steady at the 2,250-seat Hippodrome. Workers have toiled inside for months. Recently, the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. put up a construction fence, and a sign depicts a restored theater complex aglow under a violet sky.

But that appearance is deceptive, Boras said. Whiting-Turner was supposed to begin working "full bore" on Oct. 1, but the incomplete financial puzzle prevented that. The theater's transformation can occur only after crews take down its old stage and a building at the corner of Baltimore and Eutaw streets, he said.

Demolition should occur next month and in March -- if the funding is in place. "If we have to wait too much longer, it will be more difficult for Whiting-Turner to meet an '03 date," Boras said. "We really can't push until all their private fund raising is in place."

The private funds come from three sources: One is the sale of historic preservation tax credits, estimated to yield at least $8 million. Two banks, Bank of America and Allfirst Bank, want to buy the credits as a corporate tax break. Sissman said a buyer will be chosen in 30 days.

A second piece is an $8 million investment from Clear Channel. Sissman said a deal is 30 to 45 days away. (Clear Channel could not be reached for comment.)

The third piece consists of $7.5 million in donations. The France-Merrick Foundation pledged $5 million in the fall, but required a dollar-for-dollar match in new donations. "We're getting close," Sissman said.

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