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Theater sale would bring needed cash, board chair says

September 07, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

The Maryland Theatre's board of directors didn't go looking for a buyer for the historic property, but its chairman says that a sale might be just what the facility needs.

"The idea didn't originate with the board. The board was approached with an offer to buy and we decided to consider it," said Bob Borngesser, former anchor of WHAG-TV 25.

The offer is being seriously considered, Borngesser said, because, he said, the theater needs "a substantial infusion of cash" to deal with its operating and capital expenses.

At this point, not enough cash is coming from the community, Borngesser said. And without a subsidy to keep ticket prices low, he said it's tough to sell out many shows.

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Unlike Frederick's Weinberg Center, Borngesser said The Maryland Theatre is not subsidized to any great degree by government. The City of Hagerstown contributes $5,000 a year, while the county's contribution comes through the local arts council.

From private citizens, Borngesser said the average donation is about $100 a year.

"We end up each year just about breaking even," he said.

"For this great jewel of Hagers-town to be struggling is an awful thing," he said.

The potential buyer, who Borngesser declined to name, would face certain restrictions on what could be done there, he said.

"They can't tear it down and make a parking lot out of it because it's on the National Register of Historic Places," he said.

Another board member, former County Commissioner Paul Swartz, said that the agreement the board has been discussing would bind the purchaser to make certain upgrades requested by the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and would have a five-year reverter clause in case the new buyer couldn't make a go of it.

"Under the contract that was offered, they will keep it the same as it has been. They will keep it as as a theater," Swartz said.

An appraisal is being done and a lawyer has been hired to make sure everything is done legally, Swartz said.

"When we were first informed of this at our meeting, my first comment was, 'Let's investigate this completely and not have another PenMar on our hands,'" Swartz said.

Asked for the would-be buyer's identity, Swartz said, "They're not local, but they are local, in that they're doing a lot of renovation and buying a lot of buildings," he said.

"If it's done properly and it's done right, I have no problem with it (the sale)," Swartz said.

Borngesser said that another reason that the board is seriously considering the offer is because Pat Wolford, the theater's executive director, has informed the board that she won't be around forever.

Replacing Wolford, who makes $40,000 a year, could require spending $70,000 to $80,000, he said.

Reached Tuesday, Wolford said her retirement is not imminent, but she said that since she is close to age 65, she has told the board it is time to start looking toward the future.

Fund-raising continues to be a problem, she said, because with a $700,000 annual budget and donations of only $40,000 or so, the theater must depend on the $5 service fee it adds to each ticket it sells.

According to figures provided by Wolford, grants for 2004 amounted to $39,214, but some of that cash is restricted to capital expenses and can't be used for operating cash.

As for some of the comments that have been made about how awful the sale would be, Wolford was blunt.

"This is the problem with theater. The people who don't donate or patronize the theater are the ones doing the talking," she said.

Wolford is not everyone's favorite person, but she has managed to keep the theater in the black for seven of the last 10 years and there is no long-term debt, even though the former McBare's Pub was refurbished as part of the complex.

She attends every performance held there and through sheer force of will, she and the board have preserved this beautiful facility for the next generation. If local people believe that it should remain a nonprofit, they have a month to put together a proposal.

Here's my two cents: Running a theater is like restoring an old house - more fun to think about than to actually do. I hope that whoever ends up with this job has deep pockets, a lot of stamina or both.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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