SENATOR Theatre RFP: FOTS Takes A Stand, Sends Letters to Mayor Rawlings-Blake

Today, two members of Friends of The Senator (FOTS) emailed letters to Baltimore’s new mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake warning her that FOTS sees the BDC’s RFP process for theatre as flawed in its current situation. Specifically, that FOTS considers the process invalid without the inclusion of experienced historic theatre redevelopment experts.

What follows are the texts of those messages to the Mayor in their entirety.

UPDATE: Share our sentiments?
Now you can use our form letter (and add your own thoughts) to let the mayor know how you feel!

UPDATE II: Tom Harris asked that a passage be clarified.
His previous terminology is redlined and revised appears in blue italics.

From Laura Perkins, FoTS delegate to the BDC’s Senator Theatre Advisory Panel:

To The Honorable Mayor Rawlings-Blake:

I recently served on the Baltimore Development Corporation’s [BDC] Senator Theatre RFP advisory panel, along with other community leaders, as the sole representative of the Friends of The Senator [FOTS] group. I approached my duties on the RFP panel with optimism, determined to represent the interests and concerns of the FOTS and help identify an optimal future for Baltimore’s beloved Senator Theatre.

The Senator is a revered Baltimore City landmark and a celebrated State of Maryland historic showplace. It is also a renowned historic monument on the National Register of Historic Places and a source of pride among Senator enthusiasts and preservation groups nationwide, as well as a source of concern regarding its uncertain future.

I have invested considerable time and resources to research the complex issues involved with The Senator’s status as an endangered national historic landmark, and its future redevelopment and preservation potential based on successful models across the nation. My research was very encouraging, and I looked forward with enthusiasm and good faith to help produce an informed representative assessment of the two RFPs.

Madam Mayor, I applaud your intention to bring a new level of transparency and integrity to Baltimore City government practices, including the BDC. You have more support than you may imagine in that regard. In that light, I feel it is my responsibility to inform you and the public that based on my in-depth discussions with film exhibition professionals and historic theatre redevelopment experts, the alarming manner in which the BDC is conducting the Senator Theatre RFP selection process is procedurally flawed, and it must be rectified.

The process lacks the expertise and crucial transparency required for a high-profile civic redevelopment project that to date has required the investment of over a million dollars in taxpayer funds. It must become more objective and transparent as soon as possible. The Senator RFPs need objective scrutiny by industry experts to advise the panel and the BDC board, if the results, which they expect you to bless in announcing the new ownership and future direction of the Senator Theatre, are to have any validity. At this point, the RFP process is a shambles.

A key issue is the BDC’s refusal to allow a qualified historic theatre redevelopment consultant and a film exhibition expert to actively assist the citizen panel and the BDC in the professional evaluation of the two RFPs under consideration.

The Senator’s transition to new ownership and operation has many aspects to consider, including mercurial film industry dynamics, historic theatre preservation concerns and tax credit issues, evolution in programming models, deriving maximum economic benefits for the community, and models for non-profit structure and fundraising for historic theatres. It is vitally important to bring on board objective industry experts with successful track records from consulting on and managing similar projects nationwide. The industry experts have the professional experience required in managing the transition of an historic motion picture theatre like The Senator from its outmoded, single-screen first-run business model to a restored, thriving entertainment venue that delivers the maximum economic and cultural benefits to the community in perpetuity.

The Senator’s former owner, Tom Kiefaber, previously brought industry expert John Lind of Venuetech, Inc. from California to Baltimore as a consultant to meet with the extended community, and his knowledge and insights regarding The Senator’s future non-profit incarnation were invaluable. Mr. Lind is an accomplished historic theatre redevelopment professional who has the high level of experience and an impressive portfolio of success that would greatly assist the BDC’s mandate to identify an optimal outcome for the Senator RFP process. The FOTS believe that John Lind is an ideal candidate, although he is certainly not the only option available.

The BDC must reach out to include objective industry experts like Mr. Lind. These experts have developed a set of established procedures over the years, through many successful historic theatre redevelopment projects nationwide, to ensure that the final RFP recommendation submitted to you has been determined in the most credible and informed manner possible. So far, the BDC representatives have simply insisted on keeping the Senator RFP process shrouded in secrecy. In light of your recent reassurances to the citizens of Baltimore that your administration will lift Baltimore’s City Hall above and beyond its widely sullied reputation, I hope you will agree that this odd and provocative stance by the BDC is simply unacceptable, and that it warrants your thoughtful intervention.

Until qualified historic theatre redevelopment professionals are allowed into the mix in earnest, I cannot in good conscience participate further in the BDC’s tainted Senator Theatre RFP evaluation process. After careful consideration of the circumstances, I have resigned from the Senator RFP panel in protest and informed the BDC of my position in writing on behalf of the Friends of the Senator group, who support my actions on their behalf.

Thank you for your kind attention to this matter. I trust that you and your staff will assess the seriousness of this situation and agree with the FOTS group and others regarding the wisdom of encouraging the BDC leadership to open up the process and fulfill their mandate and responsibility to engage expert industry professionals in the Senator RFP evaluation process. This potentially damaging controversy will otherwise continue to escalate and potentially undermine the professional credibility of all concerned.

Laura Perkins
Friends of The Senator

From Tom Harris:

To The Honorable Mayor Rawlings-Blake,

As a founder of the Friends of The Senator (FOTS) and its president, I’ve been informed by Laura Perkins, our representative to the BDC’s Senator RFP Advisory Panel that the future of The Senator Theatre remains in jeopardy due to the curiously stubborn and misguided actions of Baltimore Development Corporation officials. If I may briefly have your attention to consider the following:

The iconic Senator is an internationally recognized Baltimore landmark, and the last of its kind in the state. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in its illustrious 70 year history it has hosted scores of high-profile premieres, served as critical economic engine and cultural amenity in the heart of the Belvedere Square business and residential communities and produced hundreds of fundraising events that have supported a wide variety of not-for-profit, charitable organizations.

If the BDC is to make an honest and optimal recommendation to your office for a plan that envisions the best possible future for The Senator, the recommended plan must be scrutinized (and when awarded, carefully overseen) to ensure that its business and programming model will not only afford it sustainability, but ensure as well that the theatre’s many unique historic features and attributes are protected and preserved to guarantee that the irreplaceable essence of Baltimore’s classic 1939 art deco jewel will endure for another 70 years and beyond!

This is not to say that The Senator Theatre should be ‘set in amber’ as there are many needed updates to the facility to enhance its multipurpose functions. But, these evolutionary changes must be carefully thought out and complimentary to a full restoration effort before being implemented. What good is an internationally recognized historic landmark if we allow it to be altered in untoward ways that historic theatre redevelopment experts would consider foolish?

In the hearts and minds of 1,400 members of the international FOTS community intently following The Senator situation, we had high hopes that BDC officials would understand the legacy, the future possibilities and the significance the theatre holds in our rich history and in our North Baltimore businesses and residential communities. The repeated refusal of the BDC to allow actively engage professional historic theatre and film exhibition industry experts to participate in the process interactive panel discussions must be seen for what it is, an obvious and potentially fatal flaw. One we will all sorely regret if it is not corrected!

Just as any right-minded fine jeweler would not entrust the hiring of a diamond cutter to someone without expert understanding (if not first-hand experience) of diamond-cutting, Baltimore should not award private new ownership or operation of Baltimore’s historic landmark theatre without the invaluable guidance of those with significant experience and expertise in the realm of historic theatre redevelopment. These experts exist and examples of their successes are serving communities like ours nationwide. This is not an opportunity to be wasted, especially when Baltimore City has already invested a significant amount in this situation!

We were honored to be asked to have a representative serve on the RFP Advisory Panel, however, until the these glaring flaws in the process are rectified the Friends of The Senator organization can no longer, in good conscience, continue to contribute to the process or give credence to its validity or outcome.

We do not make these statements lightly, nor do we wish for the process to be rendered invalid, so we beg that you give this situation the attention it deserves.

The Senator is an experience. One you can especially see reflected in the faces of those visiting for the first time and those of children. As a volunteer weekend staffer (for nearly a year now) I’ve taken note of this. Let’s do this right. At the end, how great would it be to have demonstrated to the world that Baltimore City not only respects its history, but cares enough to bring the appropriate expertise aboard to ensure that this wonderful, unique treasure has been given an optimal chance of survival for the enjoyment of countless generations to come?!

Thank you for your valuable time and thoughtful consideration of this matter.

Tom Harris
Friends of The Senator

Copies were also sent to news agencies including The Daily Record, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Messenger, Investigative Voice, etc.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Honorable Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
    Mayor, City of Baltimore
    100 N. Holliday Street Room 250
    Baltimore, Maryland 21202

    Dear Mayor Rawlings-Blake:

    As President of Theatre Historical Society of America, I write to you today to convey my unconditional support for the careful and considered reuse of the Senator Theatre, one of America’s most recognizable historic theaters.

    Further, I implore you as a matter of responsible stewardship, to include an experienced, knowledgeable historic preservation expert with specific expertise in theater preservation, on the BDC panel charged with deciding the Senator’s future.

    The BDC has already reached out to the League of Historic American Theaters, located in Baltimore, to supply written input. It is imperative that such an expert physically sits on the commission and has the opportunity to give on-going guidance and consultation as part of the deliberations.

    The Senator’s storied façade is revered nationally and internationally as an icon of Art Deco design in general and theater architectural history specifically. The Senator’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places demands that those responsible for its care take every step within their power to protect the integrity, viability and historic nature of the structure.

    Your administration has a small window of opportunity to create a safe environment for the Senator’s to flourish in the decades to come. The eyes of the Preservation Community are on Baltimore as this historic decision is made. Please feel free to call on Theatre Historical Society or me for assistance at any time.


    Karen Colizzi Noonan
    President, Theatre Historical Society of America

    Indifference to history is more than just ignorance;
    it is a form of ingratitude.
    – David McCullough

  2. According to City Council member Bill Henry, a representative of the Theatre Historical Society has been included as a member of the BDC advisory panel. In addition, the advisory panel received technical assistance both from John Bell, executive director of the Tampa Theatre, and from Marty Azola, a local contractor with extensive experience in historical renovations. John Bell was reached through the help of the League of Historic American Theatres (located here in Baltimore), another professional resource used by the BDC.

    It sounds to me like there has already been substantial participation by the historic theater community. What are your reasons for sending these open letters, which incorrectly imply that there has not already been consultation with historic theater professionals???

  3. Stu,
    Have you also heard that Ms. Noonan (the representative on the panel from the Theatre Historical Society you mention) has now also sent a letter to the mayor stating, “It is imperative that such an expert physically sits on the commission and has the opportunity to give on-going guidance and consultation as part of the deliberations”?

    Additionally, I see nothing on John Bell’s site to suggest that he has ever had a hand in renovating an historic theatre… We specified “theatre” experts.

    Finally, as I now understand it, the responses from John Bell indicated that the Cusack plan, as presented, was not likely to succeed. So, what little true historic theatre expertise they did tap into believes that A) It’s not enough and B) the plan the panel/BDC want is seen as doomed to fail.

    Hence, before we make a grave mistake, let’s have some real honest & transparent input so that nearly $1 million in Baltimore City money is not flushed down the drain and we’re not revisiting a troubled Senator situation again in just a few years.

  4. As you know, I saw Ms. Noonan’s letter on Facebook, and she and I have been corresponding both publicly and privately about the situation.

    Tom, I understand that you are defining who is an “expert” so narrowly that it excludes just about everyone.

    Ms. Noonan, in her own words, has “knowledge and experience… acquired through 15 years of interaction with historic theater projects on a local and then national level.” While it’s true that she does not bring technical expertise to the panel, Ms. Noonan is the president of a national historic theater organization, and is an expert in some areas (though, understandably, not on the technical aspects of restoring historic theaters). This is why, aside from Ms. Noonan’s present on the BDC advisory panel itself, the panel also sought technical assistance from two outside sources.

    Marty Azola is a local expert experienced in historic preservation and restoration. You’re correct that his company’s website doesn’t include any historic theaters among their restoration projects. But Mr. Azola was not being hired to PERFORM the restoration of the Senator, only to provide consultation on historic preservation, which he is qualified to do. Mr. Azola also has the benefit of being local, which means he was able to meet with the BDC panel in person.

    The majority of Laura Perkins’ comments about Mr. Azola concerned not his qualifications, but rather that he appeared in her opinion to support the Cusack proposal more than the WTMD proposal. Miss Perkins went so far as to accuse Azola of being “a ‘ringer’ brought in by the BDC so they could say they had brought in an expert.” Have we gotten to the point where anyone who prefers the Cusack plan is labeled a shill for the BDC, while anyone who prefers the WTMD plan is simply objective?

    Regarding John Bell, everyone agrees that Mr. Bell was a useful resource. I think it’s understandable that Mr. Bell was not included as a member of the BDC’s panel, as he is the president & CEO of the Tampa Theatre in Florida and therefore is not local. This is why Mr. Bell’s participation was through correspondence, while Mr. Azola was able to meet with the panel in person.

    Tom, you state that Mr. Bell’s response indicated a belief that the Cusack proposal was not likely to succeed. Neither you nor I have actually seen Mr. Bell’s response, but does that mean that Mr. Bell is actually a “ringer” because he supports the WTMD plan?

    So Tom, it is simply untrue when you tell the citizens of Baltimore that the BDC has refused to allow experts to evaluate the two RFPs under consideration.

    The real situation is that the RFP process is drawing to a close, and I’m guessing from Miss Perkins’ increasingly vehement statements that the BDC advisory panel is close to endorsing the Cusack plan, so you are doing everything you can to derail and de-legitimize that outcome.

  5. Well, let’s get two things absolutely straight:

    1) I said the BDC has not INCLUDED sufficient historical theatre redevelopment expertise – I did not state they “refused to allow”. Huge difference.
    If you considered starting a business, wouldn’t you _actively_ seek the best advice possible and from multiple sources to be reasonably sure of your chances of success?
    If you were told you needed a major operation, would you not seek multiple specialist opinions or do you just go with whatever your doc says?

    2) It is patently false that I want the process to fail. What I’ve asked is that the mayor ensure that her office will have the best information possible when it comes to her decision as to what plan is awarded so that this chapter can be closed and the future of the theatre moves forward.

    So given all this negativity I have to ask you, “Do you have a problem with this process being done right?”

    In the end that’s all I want. Awarding ownership of The Senator to a group with a well scrutinized plan that is best equipped to ensure we all get to enjoy this historic theatre for a looong time.

    You can continue to read into that whatever you like if you wish – but that’s the bottom line. If it’s done right & thoroughly there’s little anyone could justify complaining about when the decision is finally made. Period.

  6. Tom, I’m glad you want to get things absolutely straight. I do too.

    In your last comment, you stated, “I said the BDC has not INCLUDED sufficient historical theatre redevelopment expertise – I did not state they ‘refused to allow’. Huge difference.”

    Actually, that’s exactly what you stated. Here are your exact words from your letter to the Mayor:

    “The repeated refusal of the BDC to allow professional historic theatre and film exhibition industry experts to participate in the process must be seen for what it is, an obvious and potentially fatal flaw.”

    You begin your letter by saying that you’ve been informed by Laura Perkins. It sounds like you have, in fact, been MIS-informed by Miss Perkins. I don’t blame you for that, and I do believe that we both want the best for the Senator.

  7. 1) I am corrected regarding the wording in my original letter to the mayor, I’ll grant you that what I meant to get across (sufficient, relative expertise to make an informed decision was not actively sought) was not properly related. I’ve been able to revise that so that I am better understood – so thank you, Stu, for pointing that out. It’s been a great help.

    2) I must apologize to John Bell. In an earlier comment I stated, “I see nothing on John Bell’s site to suggest that he has ever had a hand in renovating an historic theatre…” Marty Azola’s name should have appeared here, not Mr. Bell. Mr. Azola is in the business of adapting historic buildings for other uses, whereas Mr. Bell is the respected President & CEO of the historic Tampa Theatre in FL.

  8. […] is ham-stringing the BDC. Letters to you from the Theatre Historical Society of America and the Friends of The Senator Theatre request that the city add someone with experience in redeveloping historic theatres to the review […]

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