AUBURN | As the Auburn Schines Theater stands silently on South Street, two groups that say they want the vacant theater restored are feuding — with one group reporting the other to the state Attorney General after what it said was two years of transgressions.
The Cayuga County Arts Council, a nonprofit, purchased the old theater in 1998 with a mission to restore it. Completed in 1938, the building has suffered extensive water damage and contains contaminants such as lead paint and asbestos.
A grassroots group of Schines supporters, Save Our Schines (S.O.S.), started up a few years ago and at first tried to work with the arts council, but soon felt alienated, said the group's president, Peter Ruzicka. After two years of what S.O.S. called a lack of transparency and progress on the project, Ruzicka filed a complaint with the attorney general.
"We had joined (the arts council) and paid dues," said Ruzicka, who is also an Auburn city councilor. "No meetings of any kind, as expected (of) an organization who solicited and sought membership. ... We kept asking for bylaws as members and did not receive them. This, along with other transparency issues to the 'membership,' were the contributing issues to this complaint."
Ruzicka received a letter back from the AG's Charities Bureau dated Aug. 3 that stated, "The Attorney General's Charities Bureau has received your recent complaint concerning the Cayuga County Arts Council, Inc. The complaint will be reviewed closely to evaluate whether sufficient basis exists for action by the Attorney General."
Representatives of the arts council were not aware the Attorney General had contacted S.O.S., but said there is nothing to hide. CCAC board member Collin Sullivan said the council has been moving forward with the project the only way it can — slowly, but surely.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded the city of Auburn with Brownfields Assessment grant money in 2010. The brownfields grants are designated for revitalizing contaminated properties, Sullivan explained, and the city used some of the grant to assess the theater for potential areas of contamination. The theater awaits the second phase of decontamination, during which experts would test the inside of the building and draw up a plan to clean it up, Sullivan said.
Ruzicka said other than the brownfields grant, no other action has taken place in recent years to restore the theater, or at least, no other action that has been publicized.
"If there was disclosure of any activity along this effort it would remove the opinion that nothing is being done here," he said.
Sullivan said it is because of the arts council that the building is in as good a shape as it is, with the roof fixed and the lobby next on the list for restoration. He said fixing the theater is a tremendously large job that must lead to the building being used, rather than sitting empty.
"It would be a terrible shame if we waved a magic wand and it was usable again tomorrow, but we didn't sustain it," he said. "Sustaining the theater is so, so important."
CCAC board president James Loperfido stressed the same long-term goal of keeping the building in use once it's fixed.
"We've been trying to put a sustainability plan in place to pay for the heat, to pay for the lights," he said.
Loperfido said the CCAC has worked closely with the The New York State Historic Preservation Department to get the grants it has won for the theater administered.
Loperfido also said a recent certified public accounting audit was done for grant monies CCAC received for restoration of the theater. An accountant went through the council's books from the past 12 years.
"Everything is as it should be here," Loperfido said.
Sullivan echoed Loperfido, saying the CCAC has partnered with the state in the restoration of the building, so he can't see what the Attorney General's office would be interested in.
"The state would have done something if there was a problem," he said.
The Save Our Schines group and a Facebook page known as Center Stage will hold a rally and birthday party for the Schines Auburn Theater at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, under the theater's marquee on South Street.
The group has invited "concerned citizens" to "express their concern for the lack of accountability and forward motion connected to the theater project."
A picket march is also scheduled as part of the rally and the group encouraged people to bring signs supporting the theater's restoration.
Ruzicka said the biggest fear of the S.O.S. group is that the Schines will be left without attention until it cannot be repaired.
"(The CCAC) needs to attract and get the needed public support that will help lead to political backing on grants (for public money) and help attract private money," Ruzicka said. "To give the appearance of no activity has not helped with restoration efforts. Many who see this lack of progress view this building as an eyesore that should be torn down."