Our View | Leaders had little choice on Garman

May 24, 2013 

It looks like it’s curtains for the Garman Theatre.

The historic theater’s days appear numbered after the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority voted last week to accept a developer’s proposal to demolish the fire-damaged, roofless theater and use the property for an apartment building.

A competing bid for the site had come from a group of 20 residents in the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association. They wanted to repair and restore the former vaudeville and movie palace, which had been closed during bankruptcy proceedings before the blaze last September that destroyed the adjoining Hotel Do De.

When Bellefonte Borough Council President Frank Halderman made the motion to accept developer Ara Kervandjian’s plan, some BHCA members gasped in shock.

We sympathize — with both sides.

Nobody likes seeing a historic building torn down, especially in a town famous for its Victorian architecture. It’s a painful, permanent loss.

Bellefonte’s residents are rightfully passionate about their heritage.

Halderman, in a guest Centre Daily Times column defending the decision, even wrote that the BHCA proposal was “without a doubt the first option that everyone would have liked to have happened.”

Despite that, Halderman maintained that going with Kervandjian made the most sense for Bellefonte, and we agree.

As usually is the case, it boiled down to money.

An architectural and engineering firm retained by the authority estimated the Garman would need $4.5 million in repairs to restore it to usable shape.

The BCHA group calculated the job would require $1.3 million.

But the group needed to start a fundraising campaign and apply for grants. Meanwhile, the developer had already lined up financing.

Additionally, the authority faced a time crunch. Considering proposals for the Garman as part of a court-ordered process to transfer ownership of the property, the IDA was under a deadline to recommend an option.

Without a timely decision, Halderman wrote, the authority would have had to demolish the Garman at its own expense — and somehow find the funds to do it.

Bellefonte went with the surer bet.

“When weighing the two entities as to who had the better chance of moving forward, the entity looking to provide workforce housing had the better financial position,” Halderman wrote.

By choosing the BCHA group, the borough also stood to lose elsewhere.

Kervandjian bought the Cadillac Building, which has languished without a roof since a 2009 fire, in January for $30,000. As with the Garman and Hotel Do De sites, for both of which he has sales agreements in place, the developer plans to convert the Cadillac into apartments.

No Garman Theatre, he told borough officials, and the entire development plan would collapse because he needs the property to secure state money to help pay for the project.

If Bellefonte couldn’t pay to tear down the Garman, neither could it afford to have derelict buildings stand in the heart of its beautiful downtown. Even worse would be a gaping hole for years, like the Bush House lot, still a vacant expanse seven years after the landmark burned down.

The borough couldn’t let Kervandjian walk.

But that doesn’t mean it’s powerless.

Kervandjian has promised to replicate the facade of the Garman and the Hotel Do De as much as possible, and to salvage any materials or ornamentation he can and incorporate them in the new apartment building.

Bellefonte should hold him to his word.

Kervandjian also sold his proposal as a means of drawing people to downtown, spurring future growth and helping make the borough a more vibrant place.

We’ll remember that, and borough officials placing their trust in the developer should, too.

They also must continue working to protect Bellefonte by solving the vexing issue of installing costly sprinklers and modern wiring in its vulnerable buildings.

The Garman’s final act may be approaching.

Let’s hope the sacrifice of a grand old theater isn’t in vain.

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