Our View | Desire alone not enough to save Garman

August 18, 2013 

We applaud the passion of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association and its supporters as they work to preserve the Garman Theatre.

But turning the fire-damaged structure into a useful community asset will take much more than desire.

It will require a long-term fundraising program that will accomplish immediate necessary upgrades and sustain the theater well into the future.

And it will demand a business model for operating the theater and marketing it to make the Garman what BHCA folks say it can again be: “A destination that would help to revitalize our downtown,” as the organization’s Mary Vollero said.

BHCA member Melady Kehm added: “The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s plan to restore the building and open it again with a goal of serving the community with an even broader mission than in the theater’s past will not only continue the Garman’s contribution to the beauty, the heritage and the economy of Bellefonte, but enhance it.”

With enough money and a good plan, that vision could be realized.

Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler appropriately extended until Aug. 26 the historical preservation group’s deadline to prove that it is ready to meet the challenge.

On that date, the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority must decide whether to grant the BHCA an opportunity to restore the historic theater, or move forward with its previous decision to raze the Garman building and two others and sell the land to a developer who plans to provide much-needed work-force housing.

Without a viable, concrete plan for the building’s short-term and long-term future, the IDA’s decision will be easy.

The BHCA says it has donations and pledges for about half of the estimated $150,000 needed to fix the roof of the Garman Theatre building, which was damaged along with the Hotel Do De next door in a major fire last September. But that amount represents a fraction of the $4 million needed to fully repair the building.

Members say they will meet the financial obligations taking over the site would bring, but to date they have not actually proven they can.

The clock is running.

We agree that Bellefonte would be a better place if the Garman were revived and again serving as a vibrant arts center in the downtown — if such a notion is realistic.

And to be sure, although developer Ara Kervandjian’s proposal appears more sound than the counter from the BHCA, the housing plan, too, brings a degree of risk and uncertainty. Kervandjian would need to secure addition capital if he gets the green light to take over three parcels, including the Cadillac Building.

“We have a building that has been in this town for 120 years,” BHCA President Keith Koch said of the Garman. “If someone doesn’t step up, it’s going to be grass. Gone forever.”

All involved must not forget that saving the theater is just the first step in a long process. Protecting the Garman from the wrecking ball brings an even greater ongoing responsibility: Fully refurbishing the theater and the rest of the building, then maintaining and marketing the site.

Parties involved in the Garman debate need only look at similar projects in Philipsburg and State College to realize that such efforts are not easy. Passion helped save both the State Theatre and the Rowland Theatre, but neither automatically landed on the road to prosperity, despite the grandeur of the two sites and the commitment of people involved.

Like Bellefonte Councilman Frank “Buddy” Halderman, who is an IDA member, we would prefer to see the Garman survive this debate, but we’re not convinced that is a realistic outcome.

“I actually support saving the Garman,” Halderman said. “I just don’t think financially it’s going to happen.”

The BHCA doesn’t have to convince us that its members can pull off reviving the Garman, and we have no doubts about their desire to make that happen.

But the BHCA supporters must convince the IDA that they can move past hopes and dreams to painted walls, booked performances and people in seats.

Otherwise, the IDA will have no choice but to turn the site over to Kervandjian and say farewell to the Garman Theatre.

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