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Theater's sale concerns some

September 03, 2005|By KAREN HANNA

karenh@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN


Several people who once worked to save The Maryland Theatre from being carted off as bricks said Friday they were concerned plans to sell the building could undermine its status as a community asset.

The board of directors of the theater announced Thursday that a private party had asked to purchase the building. Offers from other groups interested in the South Potomac Street property will be accepted until Oct. 1, Executive Director Patricia Wolford said Friday.

Mike Harsh, who served as executive director of the theater from 1979 to 1983, said he was shocked by the news.

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"It's a nonprofit corporation. It's a public trust," Harsh said. "The only reason it was saved was because thousands of our neighbors and politicians and friends raised a lot of money a little bit at a time so it could be saved and preserved. I didn't even know it could be sold."

Jack Garrott, a Hagerstown livestock dealer, chaired a citizens committee that began work to save The Maryland Theatre, which had been damaged by fire in 1974, just before the building was to be sold for bricks. Efforts to save the theater centered around donations of labor, Garrott said Friday.

"I never did figure out what it cost - probably a couple million dollars. Then," Garrott said.

According to Wolford, the theater, which opened in 1915, always has operated as a private enterprise. Selling it to a for-profit group could be a "win-win" that would allow the community to collect taxes from the theater, she said.

"The benefit of selling it would be that someone has come along with very deep pockets and wants to operate it, but for profit," Wolford said.

Wolford said she could not reveal the identity of the party who had asked to buy the theater, but she said the potential buyer had local ties and some experience with theaters. Wolford said the board only would consider offers from parties with ready capital and commitment to maintaining the theater. That would cost a minimum of $2 million to $3 million, she said.

"I can tell you that the offer we have right now is acceptable - it would have to be fine-tuned - but it is acceptable with the board," Wolford said.

The board of directors would donate money from any sale to charitable causes and it would remain intact for at least the first five years of new ownership, Wolford said.

According to Wolford, the theater, which now draws 60,000 to 80,000 people per year, has operated in the black for the past five years. Funding always is tight, though, and donations are limited, she said.

"The problem that we have had - and maybe these people are as guilty of it as some others - is it's really not seen a lot of charitable giving throughout the year," Wolford said.

The City of Hagerstown contributes $5,000 per year to the theater, which runs on a budget of $700,000 to $1 million per year, Wolford said.

Both Harsh and Garrott said they are hopeful the theater will continue to serve the community.

"People always say, 'There's nothing downtown. Downtown's dead.' But, whenever, even now, whenever there's something going on at the theater, you'll see people in the streets, you'll feel safe," Garrott said.

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