The historic Garman Theatre is set for demolition.
After months of votes, hearings, discussions and a special meeting that lasted more than two hours, the Bellefonte Borough Council voted 5-4 Monday to approve the demolition of the Garman and next-door Hotel Do De to make room for a housing proposal by developer Ara Kervandjian, who owns both buildings.
More than 100 community members packed the meeting in Lambert Hall. Most supported the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s proposal to save the Garman, but council ultimately couldn’t be swayed.
Council Vice President Vana Dainty said despite the strong showing of support at the meeting, the majority of people she has talked to have not been in favor of saving the Garman. She said 32 units of workforce housing would bring some economic improvement to the town and its businesses.
“I believe that more people walking in the streets of Bellefonte with some expendable income would be a great benefit,” she said.
Kervandjian’s plans include redevelopment of the nearby Cadillac Building and two commercial spaces on the first floor of the building that would take the place of the Garman and the Do De. All three buildings were badly damaged by a fire last September.
Investigators have said the fire was arson.
Council members Dainty, Tom Wilson, Frank “Buddy” Halderman, Walt Schneider and Joe Beigle voted in favor of the demolition request, and Renee Brown, Dave Provan, Paul DeCusati and Gay Dunne voted against.
BHCA attorney Bruce Manchester previously filed a notice of appeal with the state’s Commonwealth Court after Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler approved a Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority decision to award the building to Kervandjian.
Manchester said the documentation is ready and he plans to quickly file the appeal and a request for an injunction on the demolition of the Garman.
“(Borough Council) will not have the last word,” he said. “The Commonwealth Court will have the last word.”
Prior to the vote on the demolition, Dunne asked for a motion to delay the decision until the BHCA legal proceedings were concluded. That motion failed 5-4. Dainty, Halderman, DeCusati, Schneider and Beigle voted against Dunne’s motion to table the action.
Before council had its turn to weigh in, the borough opened up the floor to anyone in the audience. More than 20 raised their voices in favor of saving the Garman.
After each person spoke, the crowd issued a large round of applause.
Port Matilda resident Art Curtze, who was one of the first community members to make a large donation pledge to the BHCA in June, said the issue is bigger than just saving the theater.
He said Bellefonte is a great place with abundant history, but when people come there isn’t enough to do. The Garman Theatre would provide a destination for outsiders and help restore some of the town’s history, he said.
“This is about much more than saving the Garman,” he said. “It’s about saving Bellefonte.”
Former State Theatre director Jack Lafond said he knows the funding troubles facing arts centers these days, but he thinks the Garman’s large size fills a niche that the area doesn’t have.
He said a business plan to just show movies would not work, but the regional arts center proposal with shows and an artist-in-residence program could be viable in Bellefonte.
“It’s not about a piece of real estate,” he said. “It’s about the heart and soul of this town.”
Kervandjian, who spoke after the BHCA members, defended the project against common claims that workforce housing units are for very low income individuals.
He said the units would be rented to people or families with 60 to 100 percent of the adjusted median income of the area. The rents would be between $600 to $1,000 per month for the units.
“They are not going to be given away for a coupon,” he said.
He added that he would be publicly willing to pledge $50,000 to a BHCA capital campaign to find a new location for a regional arts center. He cited the planned waterfront redevelopment as a possibility.
Schneider also raised the issue that the BHCA proposal does not include any parking and it would be tough to fit the additional vehicle traffic onto the street parking spaces. Kervandjian’s plan provides adequate parking for the two buildings behind the Garman and Do De.
Dunne said that she was proud of the audience and their comments, saying that she would have liked a chance to continue to discuss it and hash out plans.
“They are reminding us that we haven’t been visionary enough,” she said.
Under the agreement with the IDA when he purchased the Garman, Kervandjian has until February to demolish it and the Do De.