Commonwealth Court denies request to delay demolition of Garman Theatre

Bellefonte’s historic Garman Theatre is one step closer to demolition.

A senior judge on the state Commonwealth Court denied on Wednesday the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association’s request for an injunction to block a State College developer from tearing down the theater that was damaged by a fire last year.

The judge also denied the BHCA’s request to appeal a prior decision of Centre County President Judge Thomas King Kistler.

Senior Judge Rochelle Friedman ruled quickly Wednesday, after hearing almost 40 minutes of arguments during a telephone conference with lawyers.

The ruling frees developer Ara Kervandjian to raze the Garman and next-door Hotel Do De by February.

The BHCA group unsuccessfully sought to buy the theater and turn it into a regional arts center.

Kister ruled in October that the BHCA does not have legal standing in the Garman matter and does not have the right to get involved in the lawsuit. BHCA attorney Bruce Manchester took up the group’s fight by appealing Kistler’s decision.

On Wednesday, the judge heard arguments from Manchester as well as Bellefonte solicitor Tom Schrack, Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority solicitor Rodney Beard and Kervandjian’s attorney, Terry Williams.

Manchester argued that Bellefonte would be hurt if Kervandjian isn’t stopped from demolishing the historic building. He said BHCA is representing the residents of Bellefonte.

“Once the building is gone, it cannot be replaced,” Manchester told the judge. “That, to us, is the irreparable harm.”

But, Williams said, Kervandjian would be harmed if he is not allowed to demolish the building that he owns and in which he has already invested thousands of dollars. Williams said the Borough Council, not the BHCA, represents the community, and it was the council in November that approved the demolition.

The IDA took control of the property in March under the Abandoned and Blighted Properties Conservatorship Act, though Manchester argued that the act wasn’t followed.

Beard said IDA members had done everything that was asked of them and more.

“I think, given the record that’s in front of the court now, it’s clear that we did comply with the act,” Beard said.

Kervandjian plans to raze the Garman and the Hotel Do De and use that property with the nearby Cadillac Building to create 32 units of workforce housing apartments.

Manchester said he will file a civil suit against Bellefonte within the next week but would not reveal specific details about the litigation.

The Garman Theatre was in foreclosure when it was damaged by the Sept. 9, 2012, fire that destroyed the Hotel Do De. The fire was ruled arson, but no one has been charged with setting the blaze.

The Garman was built in 1887. During its heyday it hosted entertainers such as Harry Houdini, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Bellefonte Borough Manager Ralph Stewart hopes the judge’s decision helps to bring some closure to the people of the town.

“My only comment is I hope today's decision brings this matter and the ongoing legal expenses to an end,” he wrote in an email. “From the beginning, the borough has worked toward the best outcome at the least expense to the taxpayers.”