by Sean Flynn
With a stroke of his pen, Centre County Judge Thomas Kistler condemned the 123 year-old Garman Theatre, once a cultural cornerstone of Centre County, to demolition.
Judge Kistler’s decision was the culmination of more than a year of uncertainty surrounding the fate of the Garman Theatre, which has stood in Bellefonte since 1890. The theatre is part of the Bellefonte Historic District, which, along with the majority of downtown Bellefonte, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The ruling formalized months of borough skepticism about plans spearheaded by the non-profit Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association (BHCA), which intends to restore the Garman and transform it into an arts and cultural center.
Instead, the Bellefonte Area Industrial Development Authority (BAIDA) chose to sell the Garman to The Progress Group, a State College development group that plans to demolish the building and construct workforce housing in its place.
The Garman was severely damaged when the neighboring Hotel Do-De caught fire in the early morning hours of Sept. 9, 2012. The Bellefonte Fire Department, in consultation with other fire marshals from surrounding areas, determined that the fire was set intentionally. The arsonist remains at large.
Bellefonte Fire Chief Tim Schreffler was on scene for the fire, and was involved in the subsequent investigation. He found extensive damage to the roof and the interior spaces in the building.
“You read the transcripts, and it doesn’t give you an idea of how bad it was. You have to see it” to understand the extent of the damage, Schreffler said.
“There was considerable damage from that fire, considerable water damage within the lower area of the building, significant amounts of mold and degradation of the interior,” he said.
The fire was the latest of a long string of setbacks for the Garman, which has spent the last 50 years as a warehouse, a part-time movie theatre, or simply sitting vacant. The owners had encountered significant financial difficulties, and were in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings with banks from out of state.
By the time of the fire, “the building was empty, the roof was leaking and basically the property owners walked away from the property,” said Borough Manager Ralph Stewart.
The Garman’s heavily damaged roof and interior walls left the building completely open to the elements. Faced with a long winter, the borough considered emergency roof repairs that would stabilize the building and prevent further damage.
“On the day of the fire, one of the fire members said he thought the damage was in the $25-$50,000 range,” Stewart said. But contractors estimated it would cost more than $150,000 to repair the roof, far more than initially speculated. Some Bellefonte citizens, who saw major repairs on a private building with no clear future as a waste of taxpayer funds, voiced their opposition to the plan.
“The taxpayers were reading the papers and called their council members and said ‘don’t do this,’ don’t spend this kind of money on a private building. They were being sarcastic and saying ‘if you’re gonna fix that, why don’t you put a roof on my house?’”
“That’s the kind of attitude the taxpayer had about that project. [Borough] council, they didn’t know it’d be $150k plus. They thought it’d be 25 or 50 [thousand dollars]. Once they found that number out, they backed away from the process,” Stewart said.
One Bellefonte resident sent an email which read in part, "If I did not have fire insurance and my roof burned off, I am pretty sure that Bellefonte Borough would not install a new roof for me. That is why I am wise enough to have insurance. Although a sad story, the owner(s) of the Garman should be responsible for the repairs."
But the owners, Kathyrn and Allison Iadarola, were in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, and “something had to be done on the property,” Stewart said.
So two months after the fire, Bellefonte building code official Russell Shuey sent a letter to the owners of the Garman declaring the building “structurally unsafe,” ordering that the building either be stabilized or demolished. That determination was made by Shuey, who, with an independent professional engineer, conducted a preliminary assessment of the Garman.
Sometime between November and January – Stewart says December — the Progress Development Group approached the borough with a plan to purchase the Garman Theatre, the Hotel Do-De and the Cadillac Building (which had burned in a previous fire) and convert them to workforce housing. The shell of the Cadillac Building could be restored, but the Garman and the Hotel Do-De would have to be demolished, according to the plan presented to the borough by PDG.
Assistant Borough Manager Don Holderman says that’s one of the things he wishes he could change. “In hindsight, looking back, I think we could have done a better job” of making those plans public.
But Holderman stressed that the borough found itself in a tight position. “Here we were with three burnt buildings, and [plans for the Cadillac building] had already fallen through twice,” he said.
When the developer approached the borough with plans for all three buildings, “we were silently jumping up and down with excitement,” he said.
Even then, significant financial obstacles stood between the Garman and its potential suitors. The owners of the Garman owed approximately two million dollars on the property, plus “probably seventy thousand of back taxes,” Stewart said.
In addition to the selling price of the property, any buyer would have to pay off the private debt and the back taxes.
With a buyer in mind, the Borough went back to their legal counsel in search of a way around. The lawyers came back with three options: A sheriff’s sale, which would clear the back taxes, but not the mortgage debt; seizing the property via eminent domain, which would require significant expense on the part of the borough; and something novel: appointing a conservator for the Garman under a new Pennsylvania law entitled “Pennsylvania’s Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act.”
The conservatorship would wipe away both the mortgage debt and the back taxes, allowing potential buyers to purchase the property without paying the mortgage or the back taxes, according to Stewart.
Borough officials felt like the BAIDA was a good fit for conservatorship. “It was up and running, it was active as a body, it’s currently doing what we call the waterfront project, and it’s really more or less a redevelopment authority. So it seemed to be a good fit, that this property would be overseen by a redevelopment authority,” Stewart said.
On March 1, in a hearing that lasted just under two hours, the court granted conservatorship of the Garman to BAIDA.
While the conservatorship eliminated the financial load surrounding the property, members of the BHCA question whether BAIDA should have been granted conservatorship.
“Properties that are historically certified or in historic districts can be considered for Conservatorship, but the petitioner must be aware that historical certification is likely to require more time and funding, and may preclude a plan to demolish a building,” according to the Implementation and Best Practices Manual written by Regional Housing Legal Services.
“Note: the statute clearly imposes additional responsibilities on a Conservator remediating a property that has been designated as historic or is in an historic district. Conservators who are supervising the remediation of such historic properties should consult with experienced historic preservation design professionals, to ensure that the work being proposed meets the requirements of the applicable local and state historic commissions.”
At the hearing, Mr. Iadraola was asked “at least twice if he had any objections” to BAIDA’s conservatorship. He said no each time, according to BAIDA meeting minutes.
Two weeks later, on March 13, Stewart notified BAIDA was notified that Iadarola had asked to “get a couple personal things” out of the Garman. According to the minutes from that meeting, Stewart “agreed to help him out because he helped the Borough out that day by not objecting to what was trying to be done” — namely, granting conservatorship of the building to BAIDA, which would ultimately give the Garman to PDG. The minutes from that meeting stated that “the building can be entered safely.”
At the next BAIDA meeting, on April 10, Stewart said that “not much has been done since the last meeting. At some point the plan needs to be discussed. There is no urgency, but the preference is to do it soon.”
At this meeting, Stewart instructed BAIDA to "prepare a plan to present to the court to show that you did look at the items that caused you to make a determination that it's not feasible to bring it back to productive use, and the only option is to demolish the property,” according to the minutes.
This meeting was the first time recorded in the minutes that BAIDA members suggest hiring an outside consultant, Kevin Clark, to evaluate the Garman.
The Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association (BHCA), a local nonprofit group, rallied local citizens in an effort to restore the severely damaged theatre. They had a plan, they said, to create a cultural and artistic center that would “revitalize downtown Bellefonte.”
The BHCA made their presence officially known at the BAIDA meeting on May 15, where the BHCA and Progress Development Group presented their plan to BAIDA.
In response to the BHCA’s plan, Kervandjian said “Buildings don’t build communities, but families build communities,” according to the minutes.
The Progress Development Group presented its plan to “rebuild the shell” of the Cadillac Building, which was deemed structurally sound. The developer would raze the Garman and Do-De, and erect 32 housing units “priced between $600 and $1000/mo,” with additional commercial space available on the first floor of the ex-Garman.
Kervandjian claimed to have the backing of Pennsylvania state senators Corman and Benninghoff, and to have applied for tax credits from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
BAIDA support for the developer’s plan was universal. BAIDA chairman Frank Halderman said of the BHCA that “they don’t have the funds available right now to do anything,” and Stewart pointed out some “disparity between BHCA numbers and [BAIDA] numbers.”
This refrain repeated a month later at the May 28 Bellefonte Borough Planning Commission meeting, whose minutes stated that “the citizen’s group does not have the finances to save and restore the Garman.”
Over the next year, the BHCA gathered more than 2,000 signatures on petitions calling for the restoration of the Garman, commissioned a professional evaluation of the costs needed to restore the building, and raised nearly $250,000 from private donors toward stabilizing and restoring the site.
In the end, it wasn’t enough to convince BAIDA to reverse its decision to give the building to the developer. On Sept. 13, 2013, nearly a year to the day after the Garman caught fire, Judge Kistler denied the BHCA’s last-ditch efforts to block the transfer.
Though Judge Kistler has made his final determinations, the legal battle continues. On Sept. 24, the BHCA filed a petition for a stay, asking that the court pause the developer’s plans and prevent the demolition of the Garman until the legal issues surrounding the Garman can be resolved.
Among other things, the petition alleges that BAIDA has treated the PDG and BHCA inequitably, requiring that the BHCA come up with more concrete funding in a shorter amount of time than the PDG.
The petition also states that the premature demolition of the Garman “contravenes The National Historic Preservation Act,”
The theatre will instead become “workforce housing,” which is housing intended to be affordable for “the typical Pennsylvania worker, who earns between $15,000 and $50,000,” according to the Pennsylvania Builders Association.
*** DEMOLISH OR NO? ***
Even then, the minutes of the Sept. 12, 2012 BAIDA meeting stated that Bellefonte Fire Chief Tim Schreffler “feels the Garman can be rebuilt.”
When asked by Voices to confirm the content of the minutes, Schreffler said he didn’t recall making that statement. He said that bringing the Garman back to its natural state would be a “high-cost activity” that would require “a considerable amount of effort and cost.”
Schreffler said he examined the building after the fire, and found extensive damage.
“You read the transcripts, and it doesn’t give you an idea of how bad it was. You have to see it” to understand the extent of the damage, he said.
“There was considerable damage from that fire, considerable water damage within the lower area of the building, significant amounts of mold and degradation of the interior.”
“There would have to be an enormous amount of investigation on the infrastructure,” he said.
Because the sale to the developer had been completed on the previous business day, neither Holderman nor Schreffler were able to grant a request by Voices to examine the building.
Shuey holds a permanent voting position on the HARB. Two days after the fire, he stated that “the old buildings are much safer than folks give them credit for being, because the old fire walls held up very well,” according to the minutes of the Sept. 11 HARB meeting.
When asked about that statement, Shuey confirmed that the older fire protection was far superior to the newer code. “For instance, between the Do-De and the courthouse annex building, they actually have 18 inches of brick on either side, 18 for the Do-De and 18 for the annex building. That fire separation is a lot better than what we have today,” said Shuey.
HARB “[had] not agreed to demolishing the building at this point,” according to minutes from its Feb. 28 meeting – and according to a Sept. 20, 2013 interview with Shuey, the board still hasn’t agreed to the demolition of the Garman, because nobody has asked yet.
“Nobody has come to the historical board yet. Anytime you demolish a building in the HARB, you have to tell HARB first,” he said.
“HARB follows the Secretary of the Interior standards for historical structures: if it can be rebuilt, don’t demolish it,” he said.
“It’s pretty standard about what it says about demolition. But council can do what they want, because it goes to them for final approval. They’ve