locally owned since 1854

Friends of the Elks group says it will meet deadline to provide information to borough to buy theater

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 7/11/17

The group hoping to acquire the Elks Theatre in Middletown for $1 in order to renovate it and reopen it as a performing arts center says it will meet a new Sept. 5 deadline that the borough has …

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Friends of the Elks group says it will meet deadline to provide information to borough to buy theater

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The group hoping to acquire the Elks Theatre in Middletown for $1 in order to renovate it and reopen it as a performing arts center says it will meet a new Sept. 5 deadline that the borough has set for the group to provide information.

The Middletown Industrial and Commercial Development Authority, part of the borough government, owns the theater.

Gordon Einhorn, who is on the Friends of the Elks’ board of directors, said that submission will include meeting a request that has been made repeatedly by Mayor James H. Curry III that the Friends group provide a letter from at least one prospective donor, pledging that the donor will contribute a specific amount of funds to the Friends group toward renovating and reopening the theater.

Curry, who is on the authority, was the driving force behind the authority voting June 20 to impose a 60-day deadline on the Friends group to provide all the information related to transferring the theater that the authority said it had requested from the group months ago.

In response to the authority imposing the deadline, Einhorn had told the Press & Journal that the Friends group never received “a formal request” from the authority for the information.

Curry told the Press & Journal that Einhorn’s statement was “patently false,” in light of an email that Einhorn had received from then-borough Council President Ben Kapenstein on March 30.

The email from Kapenstein, obtained by the Press & Journal, was sent within 45 minutes of Einhorn sending an earlier email to Kapenstein and ICDA Chairman Ian Reddinger, requesting what information the ICDA needed after the Friends group in February had submitted a letter of intent to the authority accepting the authority’s offer to transfer ownership of the theater for $1.

In the email, Kapenstein tells Einhorn that council wanted the following information: “1) Financial statements and other information for all years that the GMEDC (Greater Middletown Economic Development Corporation) ran the Elks. Please include employee records and pay as well as any capital that was put into the building. 2) Detailed information on the Friends of the Elks financing plan to restore the theater (i.e., who have you reached out to for donations and what have they promised).”

Friends is the successor organization to the GMEDC, which owned the Elks Building and operated the theater from 2005 to 2014, when the authority acquired the building.

GMEDC leased the theater from the authority and continued to operate it until the authority closed the theater for renovations in April 2015.

The theater remains closed.

Kapenstein in his email asks that Reddinger, who is copied on the email, “correct me if I’m wrong” regarding the information sought of the Friends group.

Curry, noting that “Ian (Reddinger) did not correct him (Kapenstein),” said there should have been no reason for Einhorn not to consider the email from Kapenstein a formal request for information.

Moreover, Einhorn on May 17 sent another email to Kapenstein and Reddinger, informing them that Friends was “working on getting this information together and expect to be able to get it to you around the end of the month.”

Einhorn’s comment that the Friends group never received “a formal request” makes no sense in light of the May 17 email from Einhorn, Curry said.

“How can you say you are compiling information for a request that has never been submitted?” the mayor asked. Einhorn’s statement that Friends would submit the information by the end of May further contradicts Einhorn saying that the group never received “a formal request” the mayor said.

Today the borough has yet to receive the information from the Friends’ group, despite Einhorn asserting in his May 17 email that all the information would be submitted by the end of May, Curry added.

To Curry, Einhorn saying that Friends never received a formal request makes it appear to the public that the authority has been unresponsive, a portrayal that the mayor contends is unfair and inaccurate.

Lack of communication?

Einhorn when told of Curry’s objections walked back his earlier comment regarding the lack of a formal request somewhat, telling the Press & Journal in a July 10 email that “the point I was trying to make … is that the ICDA could do a better job communicating with us.”

Einhorn said the group heard nothing from the authority after submitting its letter of intent in February until Einhorn reached out to borough Solicitor Adam Santucci in a March 24 email.

He said that the March 30 email from Kapenstein gave Friends “a general idea” what information was being sought, but the email came not from the ICDA or Reddinger, but from Kapenstein, Einhorn noted.

Curry said it should have come as no surprise that the email came from Kapenstein. The authority owns the theater, but council in early 2016 started taking steps to assert council control over the ICDA, including requiring council approval of all authority spending.

Council also replaced all previous authority members from 2015 with members of borough council, including Reddinger, who was appointed to council in May 2016. Curry is the only person on the three-member authority who is not a borough councilor. Besides Curry and Reddinger, the third authority member is council Vice President Dawn Knull.

But as another example of what Einhorn suggested is the authority’s lack of communicating with Friends, Einhorn said that it wasn’t until July 5 that the authority notified Friends of the 60-day deadline that the authority had voted to impose on June 20.

Before that, the only knowledge Friends had of the authority imposing the 60-day deadline was from the Press & Journal, when the paper sought to obtain comment from Friends regarding the action taken by the authority on June 20, Einhorn said.

The email from Reddinger said that the Friends group would have until Sept. 5 to provide all the “requested information,” Einhorn said.

In response, Curry said that the 60-day deadline was to start when the authority had under contract a real estate agent whom the authority hired during the June 20 meeting to list for sale the McNair House property on the northeast corner of North Union and East Emaus streets, which the authority also owns.

Therefore, it wasn’t possible for the authority to inform Friends of the 60-day deadline until July 5, by which time the real estate agent was under contract, Curry said.

An earlier proposal

Addressing Curry’s comments at the June 20 authority meeting and in the July 5 Press & Journal that the mayor has been requesting letters from prospective donors from Friends for at least a year, Einhorn said those requests were made based on an earlier proposal from Friends that assumed the borough would continue owning the theater over the long term.

“The ICDA ultimately rejected that idea” in favor of transferring ownership of the theater for $1, Einhorn said, prompting the Friends’ submission of the letter of intent and what Einhorn has said will be a revised proposal.

What Einhorn describes as a reversal by the ICDA actually followed council’s decision in late 2016 to reject a $500,000 grant that the state had awarded the borough toward renovating the theater and reopening it as a performing arts center.

Curry said the nature of the proposal from the Friends group is irrelevant to the need for Friends to provide the information.

“If your group wants to run, buy or lease the theater, get (us) the information,” Curry said. “I want to know who I am dealing with. To keep kicking the can down the road and then blame the authority — if you want to run the theater that badly, comply with the request.”

The June 20 motion approved by the authority said that if Friends does not meet the 60-day deadline — Sept. 5 — the authority will reach out to a group that was put together in January under auspices of the Middletown Area Historical Society, to see if the group would be willing to take on the theater project and accept the offer to transfer the theater for $1 — in place of Friends.

If at that point the new group is not interested, the motion calls for the authority to list the Elks Theatre for sale — using the same listing agent now under contract to handle sale of the McNair House.

Curry and Reddinger have both said they do not want to sell the theater, and that they would prefer the theater be turned over to a nonprofit group for $1.

However, Curry and Reddinger have also both emphasized the need that something be done soon regarding the theater. The 116-year old theater should not be the responsibility of borough taxpayers, they contend.

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