Thoughts on saving the Maryland Theatre - again

September 21, 2005

In 2002, with the help of a $250,000 loan from the state, Garden State Tanning moved its corporate headquarters from King of Prussia, Pa., to Maugansville.

At the time, David Iannucci, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, said the move was an endorsement of Maryland's business climate.

By this July, however, the company had announced it would end production here by September, with most of the work moving to Mexico.

I mention this because over the years I have heard and read so many people make assumptions about what will happen, assumptions based on hopes or promises rather than written agreements.


This though came to mind because of the offer by Demcore Development to buy the historic Maryland Theatre.

Mike Deming, the company's president, said Monday that, contrary to fears expressed by some that it would be torn down or converted to low-income housing, Demcore wants to operate it as a theater.

"If anything, we hope to enhance it," he said.

Based on the opinions of people I know who have dealt with Deming and his company, I am sure he is sincere.

But unless Deming has discovered the Fountain of Youth, he will not live forever. I wish him a long and happy life, but when he grows old, others may take over the company. And those people may have different ideas about how the theater should be run.

Unless there is an agreent that spells out how it will be run, it is possible that it could be sold in the future to a company that might decide that it would be a fine site for a "gentleman's club," complete with exotic dancers.

As I said, I'm sure that's not Deming's intent, but I and others worry about what will happen 20 years down the road.

Jack Garrott, who headed the effort to save and refurbish the theater after the lobby burned down 30 years ago, is probably wishing that his group had put language in place that would have prohibited a sale. But, as he has told me, after citizens and businesses contributed so much money, labor and material, a sale was "unthinkable."

Now he and his group are confronting the unthinkable, pressed by an Oct. 1 deadline the theater board set for proposals to compete with Demcore's.

The problem with this approach is that there has been no RFP - a request for proposals - that would spell out any buyer's obligations and responsibilities. Until an RFP is drawn up, Garrott and all citizens interested in the theater's future should object to any sale.

No company with experience in running a theater will bid on the property unless it is clear what its responsibilities would be. One that should be spelled out is making the theater available - at a modest cost - for a number of community events, such as a the free annual Holly Fest show the city government offers to citizens.

Another necessary safeguard: A reverter clause, so that if the company no longer wants to operate it as theater, it would revert to the control of a nonprofit board.

A private owner or operator is not necessarily a bad thing, if there are sufficient safeguards in place.

A private owner with "deep pockets," for example, might be able to replace the theater's aging film projection system, so that classic movies could be shown there.

Wouldn't it be fun to go see a Hopalong Cassidy Western on a Saturday morning, followed by a leisurely lunch downtown?

Tickets for such an event could be sold as a package, so that your meal would be ready a few minutes after the show was over.

In my view, there hasn't been more of an outcry about a possible sale because for so long the theater management and its board have been focused on just keeping the doors open. With few exceptions, it is a rental hall, with offerings limited to what outside entrepreneurs believe they can sell tickets for.

A sale might not be the best way to go, but if it's done. let's do it right and protect this valuable asset for future generations, so that the work done by Garrott and many others won't be lost.

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

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