Auburn Schine Theater

The Schine Theater on South Street in downtown Auburn.

The Citizen file

The stalled effort to restore the Auburn Schine Theater could be jump-started by some city funds the federal government is encouraging Auburn to spend.

An $800,000 grant to the theater, which is owned by the Cayuga County Arts Council, is one of several amendments the city's Office of Planning and Economic Development has proposed making to its 2016-2017 Community Development Block Grant Action Plan. The money would support surveying and remediating the asbestos inside the 1938 art deco theater by March 2018.

The presence of the carcinogenic substance in the theater has all but stopped its restoration, council members have told The Citizen. They estimate the remediation project will cost about $700,000, making it a pricey but necessary next step in the theater's 20-year, multimillion-dollar restoration.

Office of Planning and Economic Development Director Jennifer Haines said that estimate influenced the amount the city would allocate to the council, as it intends to fully fund the remediation. At $800,000, the project is the second-highest line item in the city's CDBG Action Plan amendments, after $948,000 for the Owasco River Greenway Trail project.

Haines said the action plan amendments were motivated by a new timely expenditure rule the Department of Housing and Urban Development introduced in March requiring CDBG recipients to spend down any balances in their accounts. If Auburn doesn't do so, Haines said, the city risks having the money recaptured by the federal government.

To make use of the funds, Haines' office is proposing amendments that would support projects in the city's five-year consolidated plan and are "highlighted as high priority needs in the community," it said in a memorandum to city council ahead of its May 11 meeting. A public hearing on the amendments will be held at the meeting, and public comment will end Friday, May 19.

Council is scheduled to vote on the amendments Thursday, June 1, and Haines said she hopes to submit them to HUD the next day. Dia Carabajal, a city councilor who also sits on the board of the arts council, has told The Citizen she will abstain from any votes related to the Schine project. She did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Most of the money ($608,560.62) for the Schine project would come from the city's small business revolving loan fund. The rest ($191,439.38) would come from a revolving loan fund used to rehabilitate several houses in the Westlake Avenue and Fort Street area in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Haines said much of that fund's balance is income from the homes' sale.

As the city is hoping to "get the funding out the door," Haines said, the arts council and other amendment stakeholders would not be required to repay the city. She stressed that the council would have to abide by federal regulations related to wage rates and other details, and that the city would retain oversight over the hiring of contractors for the asbestos project.

The grant would significantly accelerate the council's fundraising for the Schine's restoration. The council reported a current asset total of $1,086.67 in its 2015 filing with the Charities Bureau of the New York State Office of the Attorney General — the most recent year its filing is available — and a net loss of $2,650.05.

The council's financial difficulties date back to the mid-2000s, when records appear to show that the city loaned the council $13,434 that it did not repay. Meanwhile, the state of the Schine has stagnated such that the city issued the council a "repair or demolish" order in late 2016 — though Haines said the order isn't as dramatic as its language and simply meant to start dialog.

The grant would also come as the council faces the potential evaporation of the funding source it had previously eyed for the asbestos project: The Environmental Protection Agency's Brownfield program. President Donald Trump's preliminary budget proposal would reportedly see the program's funding cut by 42 percent.

The arts council applied for a $200,000 Brownfield grant in 2014, only to be denied because a proper site study was not conducted when the council bought the theater in February 1998. It later requalified for the grant and was waiting to reapply this spring, new council board Chair Ed Onori told The Citizen in April. Onori did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

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.