Mary Vollero had her wedding reception in the Garman Theatre.
When she bought her house in Bellefonte, she and some friends went to the restaurant at the Garman Theatre to celebrate.
For Vollero, the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s mission to save the building is not just about historic preservation, it’s about getting the chance to walk into the building again.
“I’m concerned if we knock it down, at this point, the scar that will be left on our town and in people’s hearts will be great,” she said.
Vollero and dozens of other “Save the Garman” team members have worked hard and attended every local meeting to try to get control of the building and turn it into a regional arts center.
They came out in big numbers last week and got a demolition vote from Borough Council postponed.
She is hoping for a big crowd again at 7:30 p.m. Monday for the special council meeting where the building’s fate will be decided.
A golden opportunity
The Garman Theatre had been abandoned long before the September 2012 fire that engulfed the next-door Hotel Do De and caused major damage to the historic building.
The business was no longer viable, the owners had given up and a bank claimed a lien on the property. Some locals made attempts to deal with the bank and get control of the building to restore it, but they were unsuccessful and the building sat vacant.
After the massive blaze, State College developer Ara Kervandjian saw an opportunity to help revitalize the town. Kervandjian, managing member of Progress Development Group, planned to purchase both the Garman and the Do De and combine them with the nearby, and also fire-destroyed, Cadillac Building, to create 32 units of workforce housing apartments.
“Rebuilding those buildings, I think, is the beginning of a process that downtown Bellefonte sorely needs in order to take advantage of some of the opportunities that they have,” he said in February.
Borough officials and Centre County housing agencies quickly got excited about the plans that would fix three burnt shells and bring more people to downtown Bellefonte.
But not everyone was happy.
Save the Garman
The Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority took control of the Garman and was ready to turn it over to Kervandjian when a challenger stepped in.
The BHCA had started a grass-roots campaign, raising money to put a roof on the building and slowly restore it to a regional arts center. The group stared gaining steam and support, giving the authority pause before the vote.
“Save the Garman” campaign members said the regional arts center would bring more culture to the town and revitalize a building that can be salvaged. Member Patrick North said it’s frustrating for him to see a town give up on a historic building instead of doing everything possible to save it.
He said the town’s potential as a historic, Victorian oasis should be preserved.
“It has been frustrating to see that potential sometimes under-used or under-appreciated,” North said. “It's an opportunity to do something positive.”
But to this point the votes haven’t gone their way.
Using the ideology that Kervandjian’s plan is more feasible, multiple votes from the IDA, Borough Council and the Historical Architecture Review Board have gone in favor of the developer.
After several court hearings, Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler approved the IDA’s plan to sell the building to Kervandjian, who quickly purchased it.
Kistler also shot down a BHCA request for an injunction, and the organization then filed a notice of appeal to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.
The two sides preliminarily talked about a compromise, but were too far apart to reach any common ground. North said the BHCA would have been interested in a compromise that allowed it to get the building and helped Kervandjian find another building to use for his project.
Kervandjian offered to try to save the facade if the BHCA was willing to help pay for it, but neither deal worked out for both parties.
Now that there is pending legal action, North said any opportunity for a compromise is likely gone.
With just one vote separating Kervandjian from demolition of the Garman, he is excited for the opportunity to continue working on his project that he is calling Bellefonte Mews.
He will be applying for Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency tax credits to raise money for the project and bring more housing to downtown Bellefonte.
A last push
Though every vote has gone in Kervandjian’s favor and he now owns all three buildings, the members of the Save the Garman campaign remain hopeful.
They plan to pack Lambert Hall Monday night to show support for their cause and sway the council in their favor. If that doesn’t work they are expected to file an appeal.
Vollero designed “Save the Garman” signs that now hang on residences and businesses throughout the town as a public display of support for the campaign.
She wants to see the building saved to restore some of the charm of the town she fell in love with.
“I just hate to see it go,” she said. “I hate to see something that can be saved be knocked down.”