Our View | If Garman goes, dream of downtown theater shouldn’t fall, too

December 7, 2013 

Garman2

The future of the Garman Theatre, in Bellefonte, Pa., shown August 12, 2013, is still being determined.

NABIL K. MARK — CDT photo Buy Photo

The fat lady’s not singing quite yet in the saga of a former Bellefonte opera house.

But she’s warming up her voice.

Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman, on the state Commonwealth Court, recently denied the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s request for an injunction to block developer Ara Kervandjian from demolishing the historic Garman Theatre and the adjacent Hotel Do De.

A fire on Sept. 9, 2012, destroyed the hotel and severely damaged the theater.

Last month, the Bellefonte Borough Council approved Kervandjian’s plan to raze the Garman by February, replace the theater and hotel with workforce housing and also build apartments on the nearby site of the fire-damaged Cadillac Building.

The BHCA wanted to buy the Garman and eventually restore it as a regional arts center. But in October, Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler ruled against sparing the Garman, saying the BHCA lacked the legal standing to intervene against Kervandjian.

Under the state Abandoned and Blighted Properties Conservatorship Act, the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority took control of the Garman, which was bankrupt and closed at the time of the fire. Kervandjian bought the Garman for about $44,000 and the Do De for about $40,000 from the IDA.

Friedman also rejected the BHCA’s request for an appeal to Kistler’s decision.

Cue the sound of scales being sung.

Following Friedman’s ruling, BHCA attorney Bruce Manchester said he’ll file a civil suit against Bellefonte. He also might have another appeal up his sleeve.

Neither looks likely to save the Garman.

In making her ruling, Friedman noted that elected council members represent the borough, not the BHCA. That’s hard to dispute in an appeal to a higher court.

Regardless of how you see the issue, the Garman’s days appear to be numbered.

That suggests it’s time to move on.

For the BHCA supporters, who raised thousands of dollars in a passionate fight for their cause, the outcome is undoubtably a bitter pill.

But if the Garman has slipped out of reach, they could still make an arts center happen.

While arguing for the Garman’s restoration, supporters have talked about how much a facility for plays, concerts and dance performances could add to the borough by drawing visitors to the town.

It still could, if BHCA supporters meant what they said. Potential alternatives do exist.

Maybe the borough’s waterfront redevelopment project could include a new arts center, albeit one less grand than the stylish Garman. Parking and access for patrons probably would be easier than they would be for the Garman, which sits on an incline a few blocks from municipal lots.

Perhaps the BHCA could work with the Bellefonte Area School District on an improvement project involving the downtown elementary school and its auditorium.

The borough just acquired the National Guard Armory property on Zion Road. Could BHCA supporters strike a deal with the borough to buy or lease some of the land? Maybe now, they could ask.

If the point of saving the Garman was not just historic preservation, but also creating a cultural venue that would enrich the town, then why not redirect all the passion and energy displayed so far into building something else for a better Bellefonte?

Some BHCA supporters have said they hold little interest in a regional arts center if they lose the Garman. That’s their right, but it’s short-sighted.

As for Kervandjian, moving on means carrying through.

Barring some strange twist, the path looks clear for him. Now, he must do what he pledged: Build new structures that respect Bellefonte’s signature Victorian architecture, not poke it in the eye.

And he must build after fulfilling his obligation to demolish the Garman and Hotel Do De by February. Vacant lots in the heart of Bellefonte, across from the Centre County Courthouse, won’t be acceptable.

The borough has entrusted Kervandjian with a great responsibility, at the cost of its heritage. He can’t let the community down.

The story must end on a good note, even if the Garman’s swan song approaches.

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