Auburn Schine Theater

The Schine Theater on South Street in downtown Auburn.

The Citizen file

Ed Onori believes he's the man to move the restoration of the Auburn Schine Theater forward.

After a few years on the board of the theater's owner, the Cayuga County Arts Council, Onori was elected its new chair in late March.

Onori is a project manager with Auburn firm Beardsley Architects & Engineers, where he's worked for 33 years. That experience, he said, gives him a network of connections to enlist as the 1938 art deco movie theater encounters a litany of structural needs on the nearly 20-year road to its restoration.

The first of those needs is asbestos remediation. The theater's air is contaminated with the carcinogenic material, Beardsley has determined, so no other work can commence until about $700,000 in remediation work is completed. Onori further believes the council's inability to let community members into the Schine has made them reluctant to donate time or money to the project.

The council hopes to fund a significant chunk of the remediation price tag with a Brownfield grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. It applied for a $200,000 grant from the program in 2014, but was denied because a proper site study wasn't conducted when the council purchased the Schine in 1998. The council has since requalified for the grant, Onori said.

However, as it prepares to apply for Brownfield funds again in May, the council could face a new obstacle: President Donald Trump. His preliminary budget proposal for the EPA, released in March, would see funding for the Brownfield program cut by 42 percent, Reuters reported. Onori said he hopes any cuts to the program are lessened or delayed as Trump's proposal goes through Congress

If the council does secure those or other funds, Onori's status as a Beardsley employee has been criticized as creating a conflict of interest. Todd Gaglianese, a former arts council member and Schine building manager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, believes Onori and fellow board member Ken Tanner, who's also a Beardsley employee, could favor their company over other contractors.

"They're basically going to be voting to pay themselves," Gaglianese said. "I can't see it being ethically right for them to be hired for any phase of this anymore."

Onori dismissed the idea of his chairmanship being a conflict of interest, as did past chair and current Cayuga County Arts Council board member Dia Carabajal.

The current Auburn city councilor served as chair of the council from 2004 to 2010, and said that when it comes to selecting contractors, the council has "strictly followed" the criteria of the state and other granting entities. Onori added that should the council board find itself voting to select a contractor and Beardsley is an option, he would "definitely" recuse himself.

Gaglianese's criticism of Onori's election also extends to Beardsley itself. Its continued involvement with the Schine project, he believes, has been "unsatisfactory at best."

Principally, Gaglianese contends that the firm misled the arts council about the Schine's asbestos content before it purchased the building. He provided to The Citizen a 1995 analysis by Monroe Monitoring & Analysis, commissioned by Beardsley, saying "none detected" on two samples of decorative plaster.

The city then provided an incomplete copy of the analysis to the arts council as proof of the building's safety, Gaglianese said. What was missing from that copy, he continued, was a caveat he'd discover later: Beardsley's identification of other potential asbestos-containing materials and its suggestion that "additional testing be performed" on them.

Gaglianese believes the firm either didn't undertake that additional testing intentionally, or it did and then didn't disclose the results. Nonetheless, the incomplete copy of the analysis led him and other arts council members to unknowingly welcome family and community members into a carcinogenic theater for years, he said.

Though Onori was with Beardsley at the time, he said he did not work on the Schine project. Still, he said, "I doubt (Gaglianese's account of events) would have been the case."

Regardless, Gaglianese doesn't expect Onori or the rest of the new Cayuga County Arts Council board to do much to right what he called a "total disaster" of a ship.

"(The Schine) needs an experienced team of restoration specialists," he said. "I only see the current board shuffling around."

Carabajal, however, praised Onori's qualifications as chair. She noted that he sits on Auburn's Historic Resources Review Board, which oversees the theater and other landmark city properties. 

"He's the right person at the right time," she said. "He brings a great deal of professionalism and knowhow to the project."

Aside from Onori as chair, the council's vice chair position, which Carabajal occupied, is now vacant. Her sister Vera continues as secretary, and Charles Taylor as building committee chair.

Jim Loperfido, who served as the council's chair from 2010 until Onori's election, returns to the role of treasurer, albeit in an interim capacity.

Loperfido previously served as treasurer of the council in the mid-1990s, when a financial shortfall led it to cut its only two full-time positions and, as a result, lose $50,000 in annual state Council on the Arts funding, according to The Citizen archives. The Cayuga County Legislature then refused the council a request for $19,000, citing "the poor shape of the council's financial records."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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Features editor for The Citizen.