Bellefonte group hopes to save Garman Theatre

Razing the Garman Theatre to make way for an apartment building would be an “absolute betrayal” of Bellefonte’s heritage, a resident told a crowd of about 60 people who came together Wednesday to support a plan by a local group to thwart its demolition.

Jeanne Newlin, who said she loves the Garman and put her “heart and soul” into Bellefonte by restoring two homes, wants to see the historic theater spared from the wrecking ball. The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association organized the meeting where Newlin and others spoke in the hope of spreading the word about their counterproposal ahead of an important court date next week.

A county judge will hear testimony June 20 about the plan by local real estate developer Ara Kervandjian to build an apartment building on the properties of the Garman and next-door Hotel DoDe properties that were damaged in a fire last year.

Kervandjian’s plan, which includes the fire-damaged Cadillac Building for the housing development, was supported last month by the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority over the historic association’s plan to turn the theater into an arts center.

But Keith Koch, the historic association’s president, is pointing toward a restrictive covenant on the property that says the theater cannot be torn down. He’s hoping that will sway President Judge Thomas King Kistler, who ultimately will decide the fate of the building, to reject Kervandjian.

“I wanted to let the public know that it’s not a done deal until the judge makes a decision,” Koch said after the meeting. “There’s still hope to preserve the Garman in its historical setting and make it usable for the citizens of Bellefonte and whoever comes to Bellefonte.”

The meeting attracted a robust crowd on a night that competed with Bellefonte Area High School’s graduation. It brought out people such as Gay Dunne, a borough councilwoman who said she went as a resident interested in historic preservation, and Gary Hoover, the executive director of the Bellefonte Intervalley Area Chamber of Commerce, who said he went as a resident interested in the same.

As Koch and other presenters got into the finer points of their plan, the crowd several times broke into applause.

Their plan revolves around taking the Garman beyond its past life as a theater. Instead, Koch’s group would want to the arts center to offer live music, summer camps, art programs, internship opportunities for college students, studio space for artists and more.

Resident Jonathan Eburne said the towns of Woodbury, Tenn., and Nelsonville, Ohio, have seen old theaters undergo renovations and be put back into use, and he hoped the same could be possible in Bellefonte.

Koch said putting a roof over the Garman would be the group’s first priority. He estimated that at $250,000 and a full renovation in the ballpark of $1.3 million.

However, that’s far off the $4 million estimate that Bellefonte borough officials got.

Koch said he will give an abbreviated version of his proposal to the judge at the hearing next week. If the judge rules in favor of Kervandjian, then Koch and his group likely will give up their fight.

But despite what appears to be an uphill battle, the people who came out Wednesday night offered heartfelt thoughts and see historic preservation as a boon.

“Those of us who love this town dearly need to get behind this and do it,” said Sally Houser, a Bellefonte resident for 46 years.