Judge gives Bellefonte group more time to bolster plan to save Garman Theatre

The last-gasp efforts by a group of residents to save the fire-damaged Garman Theatre have paid off — for now.

The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association must have convinced President Judge Thomas King Kistler of the promise in its plan to restore the historic theater and turn it into the community gem it was for years, as the judge said Friday he is not ready to hand over the theater to a local developer who wants to raze it and put up an apartment building in its place.

In a court order, Kistler gave the historical association a two-month deadline to get together a more solid financial plan for rehabilitating the theater and will have both sides back in his courtroom — from which the theater can be seen — to hear the progress and weigh the competing plans.

“If BHCA is successful, the community of Bellefonte will have regained a part of its history,” Kistler wrote. “Should BHCA not be successful, then hopefully the entire community can join together, having exhausted all possible efforts to save the Garman.”

Keith Koch, who led the charge with the historical association, was not aware of the judge’s decision Friday afternoon and did not offer immediate comment. The members of his group have to be happy, though, as they will get more time to try to raise money beyond the $60,000 they’ve already had committed.

The developer, Ara Kervandjian, of State College, did not return a message seeking comment Friday afternoon.

The complex story behind the tug-of-war over the Garman started when a late-night fire in September gutted the adjacent Hotel Do De and badly damaged the theater. The Do De was deemed a total loss and ordered to be taken down, but the Garman was found to be salvageable.

But the Garman‘s owners had been in foreclosure, and years of no ventilation and a leaky roof resulted in a mold-filled interior that only added to the costs repair it.

Enter the real estate developer, Kervandjian, who saw an opportunity to turn the Garman and Hotel Do De tracts into an apartment building whose facade would blend in with the red brick that dominates that side of the downtown diamond. He bought the Cadillac Building, which has sat roofless for three and a half years after a fire, and planned to make the three plots into the 32-unit Bellefonte Mews apartment complex.

Bellefonte municipal officials got a court order declaring the Garman a blighted property and took control of the theater from the bank that held it in foreclosure. Borough Council made the borough’s Industrial Development Authority the conservator under the blighted property act, or in other words, the group that would select a buyer for the property and recommend it for court approval.

In a wrenching decision, which borough officials have defended time and again, the authority picked Kervandjian’s proposal over the historical association’s plan. Council President Frank Halderman, who sits on the authority, said the prospect of having the three blighted downtown buildings rehabilitated outweighed saving the historic theater.

The authority presented Kervandjian’s plan to Judge Kistler on June 20, and Kistler allowed the historical association’s Koch a few minutes for his plan.

Koch was hoping that a historical covenant attached to the Garman’s deed — prohibiting it from being demolished — would sway the judge.

“The court’s decision can have significant effects on others in the community, and in the case of demolition, can be irreversible,” Kistler wrote in the order. “Understandably, and heartwarmingly, the entire community of Bellefonte has demonstrated how seriously it takes the potential demolition of one of its historic buildings.

“At this time, the court believes it is premature to approve the plan proffered by (Kervandjian) when the possibility still exists that the Garman can be restored.”