Scrooge to Bellefonte: “Bah! Humbug!”

Streetscape next to the Centre County Courthouse if and when the Garman Opera House is razed. We need to stop this before it happens. Photo rendition by Mary Vollero

Streetscape next to the Centre County Courthouse once the Garman Opera House and Hotel DoDe are razed.  Photo rendition by Mary Vollero

Three days ago, Ara Kervandjian, in his capacity as head of PDG and Bellefonte Mews (both are limited partnership companies created by Kervandjian), started tearing down the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe (also see my previous blogs on this issue here, here and here).  He received clearance to start the demolition after the Bellefonte Borough Council by a 5-4 vote granted a permit for demolition of this structurally sound historic theatre. The windows are already gone as are, I understand, the chairs inside. Teardown of the building, brick by brick is expected to start on Friday, December 20–five days before Christmas.

This morning, Gary Hoover’s letter to the editor appeared in the Centre Daily Times.  He focused on the effect of the impending demolition of the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe to the Bellefonte, PA community. Here are a couple of sentences from that letter:

It will take years to reckon the true cost for our community on multiple levels and, because of the precedent it sets, for future preservation efforts across the state.

But I bet the sum, when fully known, will be astonishing. Just the damage done to various important community-working relationships, erosion of trust in the responsiveness of local government and of faith in the fairness of our court system already frame a disaster.

I agree fully with Gary Hoover.  This callous destruction of the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe is truly Scrooge-like.  Ripping down these gems of Victorian Bellefonte is ripping out much of the heart of our town. In terms of history.  In terms of historic architecture. In terms of economic sustainability. In terms of community.  In terms of trust in our local government.  In terms of business continuity.  And inevitably, in terms of continued respect and interest from visitors to our town.

Bah! Humbug!

Ignoring and dismissal of the public concern about destroying our history is part of this Scrooge-like behavior. How was the public ignored?  Here’s just one example of the “Bah, Humbug to you” mentality of the people in power; it is one of many that have occurred since this saga started.

In late October, Bellefonte’s Scrooge-like Council initially tried to clear the room of supporters of the Garman at a Council meeting.  On the agenda that night was a vote for demolition of the Garman Opera House and the Hotel DoDe.  They cited a fire hazard when they ordered us to leave.  They backed down and tabled the vote for two weeks after I stood up and cited Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law regarding public participation and comment before taking any official actions.

Two weeks later, over 130 people came to the special meeting.  Twenty-six people spoke out; none of them supported the demolition of the Garman.  After the public comment period ended, Council asked Ara Kervandjian for comments. He stood up and had a letter written into the record that erroneously stated that the demolition follows federal preservation rules. When several people in the room called for proof of this statement from the appropriate authority, the President of Council denied any further comment from the public and called for a vote to demolish the buildings.

Three days later, Borough Council, Kervandjian and several others received a letter from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s (PHMC) Bureau of Historic Preservation stating that the letter read before the vote was incorrect (see quote below). Thus the vote for demolishing these historic buildings appears to have been flawed.  Yet when the public asked the Council to reconsider this vote based on having been presented flawed information, Council said no.

In other words, “Bah! Humbug! to the citizens, businesses and visitors of historic, Victorian Bellefonte.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future Speak Out

Quoting from the PHMC Bureau of Historic Preservation letter:

We recently received a copy of the November 11 letter addressed to you from Holly Glauser of PHFA. In it, she mistakenly states that the review process under Section 106 is complete [emphasis added]….

In our opinion, although fire damaged, these building retain sufficient integrity to convey their significance and contribute to the Bellefonte Historic District.  Therefore, the removal of the contributing buildings and new construction has the potential to adversely affect historic properties, specifically the Bellefonte Historic District….

Under Section 110(k)of the National Historic Preservation Act, any demolition (even as a result of a court order) that occurs PRIOR to [emphasis in original] completing the Section 106 review process would be considered “anticipatory demolition” and could put your use of HUD funds in jeopardy. Every effort should be made to resolve the potential adverse effect prior to any decision to demolish a contributing building within the Bellefonte Historic District.

Andrea McDonald, Acting Director, Bureau of Historic Preservation

Who is Scrooge?

Who is Scrooge in this act of destruction?  There’s more than one Scrooge in this comedy of errors.

There’s the developer, Ara Kervandjian and his companies PDG and Bellefonte Mews who ignored all calls for saving the Garman. They said it’s “too expensive” to preserve even the facade.

There’s the Bellefonte Area Industrial Authority who pooh-poohed the alternative plan by the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association (BHCA) to preserve the theatre and create a regional arts center. They gave Kervandjian essentially a free ride in presenting his plan while at the same time created multiple hurdles for BHCA to jump over that weren’t raised in Kervandjian’s plan.

And then there’s the majority of members of the Bellefonte Council who ignored calls, petitions, and public meeting calls for saving the building  and then voted to destroy part of the town’s National Historic District based on false information.

Here in Victorian Bellefonte, we are not likely to see the happy ending written into the original Victorian classic, “A Christmas Carol.”  Our Scrooges haven’t seen, or heard the spirits of Bellefonte’s past, present, or future. Their hearts and minds appear to be heartlessly frozen.

Neither Bellefonte nor the state want to see these miserly Ebenezer Scrooge’s harm our town and historic preservation in general.

Scrooges, do the town some good.  We still have a chance to turn this travesty around before the buildings are completely gone. These historic buildings are our town’s Tiny Tim.  Save “him” now.

Preservation: We’re Down to the Wire

picture of the front facade of the Garman Opera House in Bellefonte, PA

Help Save the Garman Opera House

On July 1, I posted a blog about a local historic theatre in Bellefonte, PA.  At the beginning of August, Judge Kistler ordered the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority (IDA) to seriously consider the plan offered by the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association.  We presented that plan on Monday, August 26.  Then on Friday, August 30, the IDA responded with a series of conditions. One of these conditions includes raising more funds by September 11, when they will make their final decision.  We have already raised 60% of the necessary funds in the last 6 weeks.  We are now down to the wire and need your financial help.  Here’s the background.  Please read and consider donating or pledging to help us raise these start-up funds.

History

The Garman Opera House is located on East High Street on the south side of the Courthouse in Bellefonte, PA, next to the Garman House. Later known as the State Theatre, it was constructed next to the Garman House in 1890. This Theatre added another attraction to the busy world of fashion and culture. The song “After the Ball is Over” was first sung in public here. The theatre was host to the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Houdini, the Flora Dora Girls, and a myriad of Wild West and one-act shows. In the 1900s it started showing films, first silent and then talking, but the last movie was shown in 1961. It then became a warehouse. It was restored in the 1990s as a stage performance center and then turned back into a movie theatre as well as performance center. In 2006 the rear portion was expanded upwards with guest rooms and suites. That venture did not, unfortunately, meet with success.

In September 2012 the neighboring Garman House (Do-De Hotel) was destroyed by fire, and the roof and upper floor of the Opera House were damaged.

And at that point the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority (BIDA) was appointed by the court to determine what to do with the Garman Opera House.

 Vision

OUR VISION: A STANDING GARMAN THEATER–and a vibrant arts center for the community and region.

  1. The Garman can become a venue for plays, concerts, readings, and other arts, rather than a rubble pile left from a wrecking ball or an empty lot.
  2. Once we stabilize the building and launch our capital campaign, the Bellefonte Regional Arts Center (BRAC) will operate as a nonprofit arts organization under the umbrella of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association, with its own governance structure and directorship. Reborn as the BRAC, the Garman Theater will become a dynamic, multi-use center for regional arts and culture, accessible to everyone.
  3. A Regional Arts Center makes economic sense. Non-profit arts and culture organizations are a 2.5 billion dollar industry in Pennsylvania alone, supporting over 81,000 jobs in the state and generating hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue to state and local governments, as well as to residents.
  4. Throughout Pennsylvania, small towns and cities alike have revitalized their downtowns through arts organizations: Johnstown now has its own Kernville Arts District, featuring major public art and a variety of new arts spaces such as Art Works and the Bottleworks Ethnic Art Center. The rural towns of Wellsboro and Towanda are major tourist destinations on account of their arts-centered downtowns; both feature historic theaters that have been adapted to show films, plays, music, and other performing arts. Easton, Reading, Lewisburg, Bethlehem, Sewickley, Farmington, Jim Thorpe, Milford, and many communities have benefited substantially from regional or community arts centers.
  5. The BHCA [has contacted and] can benefit from partnering with other organizations, such as Artspace and the League of Historic American Theaters, two non-profits with experience in helping communities rehab empty spaces into creative places that draw people and commerce into communities. This is certainly preferable to empty lots and cookie-cutter housing units.

On Friday, August 30, the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority sent the BHCA a series of conditions for selling the Garman to us to rehab.  Since mid-June, when the court ordered the IDA to seriously consider our plan for the Garman, we have raised just about $150,000.  The IDA has now said that we need to have $250,000 “in the bank” by September 11, 2013.  So those of us on the planning and fundraising committees are reaching out to everyone we know to ask them to make a tax-deductible donation as large as you can in time to meet this deadline.

We have two websites. One of them— http://garmanoperahouse.org — focuses on the Garman Opera House and our vision for the future. The other one — http://bellefontearts.org — presents the credentials of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association; it also provides a look at the arts projects we currently organize and conduct.  I have a 34-page plan we put together that I can send to anyone needing additional information.  I also have a copy of the PowerPoint presentation we presented before the IDA on Monday, August 26 that I could provide.  My phone number is 814-355-3056 and I’m willing to talk to anyone who wants more information.

Donations can be made either by check or online. Online donations can be made via PayPal or credit card; go to the home page of the Garman Opera House and click on the “Donate” button.  You can also mail in your donation; make checks payable to BHCA and mail to:

BHCA
P.O. Box 141
Bellefonte, PA 16823

“The official registration and financial information of BHCA may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll-free, within Pennsylvania, 800-732-099. Registration does not imply endorsement.”

Thank you in advance for helping us out in this time-crunch period.