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Auburn Schine Theater

Special report: The turbulent past, quarrelsome present and uncertain future of the Auburn Schine Theater

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Founders Day 2014 was a busy day at the Auburn Schine Theater.

For the first time in years, the lobby of the long-shuttered 1938 John Eberson movie palace was open to the public.

Dozens passed that August day under the flaking paint and bent steel of the downtown theater's marquee, through its restored terracotta art deco doors and into the lobby, where building owners the Cayuga County Arts Council sold T-shirts and chocolate bars to support its effort to bring back the Schine.

One of those guests, then-Rep. Dan Maffei, was welcomed personally by the same black marquee lettering that nearly 40 years earlier announced screenings of "Jaws" and "Star Wars." Indeed, the Schine was experiencing a new hope.

Founders Day 2015 was a different story.

Plexiglas panels installed the year prior in order to patch gaps in the marquee had fallen away, allowing pigeons and owls to make the structure their home once more. Weeds and garbage cleared at public cleanup events the previous summer had returned. Even the literature in the poster cases that regularly updated passersby on the progress of the Schine project hadn't been changed — in part because there was little progress to report. 

After maybe the noisiest year in the two decades since its restoration began, a hush had fallen over the Auburn Schine Theater.

In the silence, familiar questions have resurfaced: About what's next for the project, about whether the Cayuga County Arts Council has the resources and organizational integrity to lead it, and about the place of a restored Schine in 21st-century Auburn.

Inside the Auburn Schine Theater

The stage of the historic Auburn Schine Theater as it appears today.

The present

There has been one conspicuous addition to the Auburn Schine Theater since 2014: A placard with a silver "X" over a red square now hangs in the glass of one of its front doors.

The placard indicates that the theater poses a significant hazard for interior firefighting, Auburn Fire Chief Jeff Dygert said. The "X" is the highest of three hazard levels ascribed to the city's vacant properties through a new safety program last fall.

Though the Schine's roof was patched in 1998 and fully repaired in 2002, years of water damage exposed gridding and wire mesh in the theater that could entangle responders, Dygert said. As such, the placard warns them not to enter the building if it's on fire.

Less problematic for his crews, Dygert said, is the hazard that currently sits atop the Cayuga County Arts Council's to-do list in the Schine restoration project: asbestos.

The whole building is contaminated with it, said Ed Onori, project manager with Beardsley Design Associates and a member of the council's Schine steering committee. Without heating, the asbestos wrapping the pipes in the theater's projection and stage areas fell off, he said. Once it hit the floor, the carcinogenic material became dust and circulated through the air, filling the auditorium and other areas of the 12,848-square-foot theater.

Onori and the CCAC have prioritized asbestos in the absence of any urgent structural issues, he said. However, one of the council's most vocal critics, former CCAC member and Schine building manager Todd Gaglianese, insists a water leak in the theater's back wall is causing so much damage to its brick and mortar that the wall will collapse within a couple of years.

Onori acknowledged "drainage issues" in the building, but attached no such urgency to them.

Thus the focus of the CCAC's fundraising efforts is a $1.5 million phase of remediating all of the Schine's asbestos and opening the theater's front and rear lobbies. Building manager and board member Tim Kerstetter said observation windows will be installed in the auditorium wall to allow visitors a glimpse of its restoration while the newly open space hosts programming and public events.

To generate the funds, the council and its steering committee partners Joe Sheppard and Mike Long at Finger Lakes Planning and Development applied for three grants in the latter half of 2014: a $200,000 Brownfields Cleanup Grant from the EPA, a $500,000 Historic Preservation Project grant from New York state and a $250,000 Main Street Project grant also from the state.

Drumming up support for the Schine steering committee as it readied the applications was the same person who assembled that committee: Project manager Todd Coleman, a project executive with CCAC partner Bouley Enterprises. Along with personally patching the marquee and placing information about the Schine's restoration in its streetside poster cases with Kerstetter, Coleman organized the public grounds cleanups as part of an outreach effort toward critics like Gaglianese.

"We all saw the good things that can be accomplished when the community is included, informed and allowed to participate," Gaglianese said. "Todd Coleman was the catalyst."

The energy wouldn't last. Coleman left Bouley sometime that fall, current CCAC Board of Directors President Jim Loperfido said. Several sources interviewed for this story said the reason was a personal matter unrelated to the Schine project. Coleman could not be reached for comment.

More momentum was lost when the CCAC learned it had been denied the three grants it sought. The EPA grant was rejected, Onori said, because the council didn't conduct the proper site study when it purchased the Schine in 1998. It is uncertain whether the study was actually a prerequisite for the grant, though, and the CCAC is still trying to clarify the issue with the EPA.

Loperfido said the reason for the state grants' denial was not provided. The decision "blew me away," he said.

Grants will continue to figure heavily into the CCAC's fundraising efforts, Loperfido said, but the thorough documentation required by the state's new Grants Gateway application process poses a challenge. 

In search of alternatives, Schine committee members met this summer with Cayuga Economic Development Agency Executive Director Andrew Fish about the possibility of the Schine fitting into the Upstate Revitalization Initiative should the region win one of three $500 million funding packages in the statewide competition later this year.

Fish said the CCAC would be challenged by the state's requirement that any dollars it provides be matched by the recipient at a minimum of five to one. If the money does come to the Central New York Regional Economic Development Council, Sheppard said, the steering committee will do what it can to meet that and other challenges.

Meanwhile, the council is also talking to private investors who are "warmly excited" to buy into the Schine project, Loperfido said.

"My business sense says that's how it's going to get done," he said about private investment. "There are a lot of right answers to things. It's one of the better right answers."

However the Schine's multi-million-dollar restoration is funded, the plan appears not to have made many strides as of late: The council's Sept. 4 meeting was its first since February, Kerstetter said.

The past

Speaking at a May 1996 community forum on the future of the Auburn Schine Theater, Cayuga County Arts Council member Jim Loperfido said, "We don't want it to be an arts council project."

Twenty years later, the Schine's restoration is nothing but a Cayuga County Arts Council project. And it's just about the only one on the plate of a nonprofit organization established in 1978 to promote local arts and artists.

That same year saw the last film screened at the Auburn jewel in the 280-theater crown of cinema kings Junius Myer and Louis Schine. It'd then become Auburn Music Hall, Charlie's Night Club and Who's on First Video, the latter operating in the lobby until 1992. Its co-owners were John Pettigrass Jr., whose family owned the building, and Loperfido.

Two years later, Loperfido was at the forefront of calls to save the theater when Wegmans acquired an option to purchase — and likely demolish — the vacant building. In the face of the public's opposition, the supermarket chain declined to exercise the option.

Much as people like Loperfido made known their wish for the Schine to be saved, no entities would commit to being the savior. The city declined a 1995 offer from the Pettigrass family to purchase it for $12,000 in back taxes due to concerns about the project's cost.

Thus the leadership role defaulted to the CCAC, the area's largest arts entity, which began looking at shouldering the project after a 1993 feasibility study from Daniel P. Coffey and Associates plotted the Schine's future as a performing arts center costing $3.4 million. The theater's receipt of historic landmark status from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation in September 1994 qualified the project for an $88,000 grant from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund that the CCAC secured in January 1996. As a condition of that status, the grant could only fund building work approved by the state office.

The grant had another catch, former CCAC board member Todd Gaglianese said: The council had to buy the building.

And so, on Feb. 3, 1998, the Cayuga County Arts Council bought the Schine from the Pettigrass family for $26,000 in back taxes owed to the city.

However, the CCAC's purchase wasn't made on the best fiscal footing. The year prior, it was forced to cut its only two full-time positions, costing it more than $50,000 in yearly New York State Council on the Arts funding, when a shortfall emerged in its finances due to $2,000 in IRS penalties and missed grant opportunities. The Cayuga County Legislature refused to hear a request for $19,000 to get the CCAC through the end of 1997 because its 1996 financial records could not be produced.

More specifically, those records could not be produced by the council's treasurer at the time: Loperfido. Asked about the matter recently, he said: "I don't know anything about it."

By the time the CCAC purchased the Schine, Loperfido and much of its membership had been replaced by Gaglianese, Dick Mahlstedt, Karen Colizzi Noonan and others. The three were also members of a subcommittee called Friends of Auburn Schine Theater, whose mission was to specifically manage the restoration project. Mahlstedt even fronted the money for the building's purchase and later refused to be reimbursed for it by the incoming grant funds, Gaglianese and Noonan said.

It was quickly apparent to the two when they became board members that the new council had some cleaning up to do.

"They voted us on the board, then 90 percent of them resigned and said 'Good luck,'" Noonan said.

With Mahlstedt as president, and with Mike Long assisting as the city's director of capital projects and grants, the CCAC painstakingly got its financial records in order to qualify for an additional seven grants from the EPF, HUD and Empire State Development Corp. totaling more than $850,000. The money funded stabilization measures like the 1998 patching of the Schine's roof, masonry repair and sump pump installation. The council also had the property placed on the National Register of Historic Places in March 2000.

In 2001, Mahlstedt passed away from cancer.

Both Gaglianese and Noonan point to his loss as the beginning of the end of FAST and its coexistence within the council. Incoming board members like Dia Carabajal felt the Schine project had led the organization too far astray from its mission of promoting local arts, Gaglianese said.

"All FAST resolutions and reports brought to the board were repeatedly tabled by the new majority. CCAC continued to add artists to the board to fortify their stranglehold on the building," he said. "They slowly halted all progress and undid all of our hard work. Thirteen dedicated board members, including myself, walked away because we could no longer do the job that we loved."

The exodus took place from 2001 and into January 2003, when Gaglianese left his position as building manager.

Carabajal became the CCAC's president that September. Despite her side of the philosophical divide within the council, she still oversaw improvements to the Schine as board president.

"It's a huge project that sucks every bit of energy out of the air," she told The Citizen in 2004.

That same year, she projected the theater would reopen in four years, with its stage ready in another four, for a total cost of about $4.3 million — the last time the council itself would publicly attach a price tag to the entire project. Restored poster cases and front doors were unveiled in January 2007, with electrical work completed that summer. 

10. Doors

Restored doors to the Auburn Schine Theater are revealed in January 2007.

The present, revisited

It was also in 2007 that a sum of money first appeared in the Cayuga County Arts Council's financial records that former member Todd Gaglianese considers proof of the new council's mismanagement of the Auburn Schine Theater project. 

The sum: $13,434. Gaglianese believes it came from the city of Auburn via an arrangement he made with its director of capital projects and grants at the time, Mike Long, to front money to the council that it would pay back when grant reimbursement arrived. Because that could take months, Gaglianese said, the city's aid spared the CCAC the substantial interest it had been accumulating on bank loans.

The $13,434 appears as a liability in the council's 2007, 2008 and 2009 tax returns, and detailed forms for subsequent years are not available because the CCAC's yearly income fell below the $50,000 threshold for filing the extended return. The amount also appears in CCAC meeting minutes from 2008 as "City of Auburn loan."

"It was some kind of advance the city gave us in anticipation of getting some kind of grant back again," said Judith Selover, the council's treasurer at the time. 

The city never made clear to Selover whether the money was owed back, she said, and she could not recall any other details about its receipt or purpose.

Dia Carabajal, president of the CCAC board at the time, said the liability's listing in the council's returns was done at the recommendation of its accountant at the time, Brenda Kayn, who also called it a loan in a recent interview.

City officials denied loaning any money to the council. Both Long and his successor, Christina Selvek, said they don't know of any bridge loans from the city to the CCAC.

Current city clerk Chuck Mason said any such transactions would have required approval by Auburn City Council, and none appear in its records. He could not explain the $13,434's appearance as a liability in the CCAC's returns, but said it's possible the sum was listed in anticipation of receiving city money.

The amount does, however, make one appearance in council minutes: in a transfer from a city account titled "Build Now NY" to one titled "Schine Theater" approved by a Jan. 28, 2010, city council resolution. Selvek said "this only shows proper accounting measures after the authorization by city council to city staff to transfer funds within existing city accounts."

A scenario in which the CCAC didn't pay that $13,434 back to the city — because it didn't file for reimbursement from the state historic preservation office — is also supported by information from Carabajal's successor as board president: Jim Loperfido.

After he was voted back onto the board in 2010, Loperfido said, he learned the office had "blacklisted" the council from future grant funding because it hadn't filed the proper final paperwork.

"I don't have an answer why it wasn't, it just wasn't," he said.

To re-qualify for grant funding, the CCAC underwent a lengthy internal audit by Kayn and accountant Elaine Buffington, Loperfido said. Kayn said the audit came back clean, but Buffington said the only work she did for the CCAC was compiling 2012 and 2013 financial statements that the council has neither picked up nor paid her for.

The historic preservation office declined to provide details about its relationship with the council, except for the following statement: "All projects at the Schine Theater related to grants administered by the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation have been satisfactorily completed. The final payment was made in July 2013.”

Finances weren't the only source of difficulty between the CCAC and the state around this time.

Peter Ruzicka, chair of the Save Our Schines group that formed in 2010 to advocate for the theater's restoration, reported the council to the Charities Bureau of the state Attorney General's Office in July 2012. Ruzicka and other Save Our Schines members had become paying members of CCAC, but claim they were denied access to information about meetings, board elections and the council's bylaws.

Ruzicka, who was sworn in as an Auburn city councilor in January 2012 and is now running for re-election, declined to be interviewed for this story due to his schedule. He emailed a statement based on letters to the editor recently published in The Citizen criticizing the CCAC:

"The Cayuga County Arts Council needs to engage the community if it truly is their desire to move this restoration forward," Ruzicka said. "The lack of openness, transparency and the willingness to accept help is the key issue here."

The attorney general's first request for information was not answered by the CCAC, leading to a July 2013 subpoena, records show. The attorney general's office would not comment about the status of the investigation, but did note that the council was delinquent with its 2012 and 2013 filings to the AG's Charities Bureau. Loperfido said the filings had been made on time, and were re-sent Sept. 3.

Around this time, the CCAC board approved a resolution not to respond to the attacks of Gaglianese, Ruzicka and other critics, Loperfido said. To that end, it also suspended its paid membership. He acknowledged that the council, now just a board of six volunteers, had become the thing he and Carabajal tried to prevent: a single-purpose organization devoted to the Schine.

Mason agreed that the second-guessing strains an already overburdened board, calling Gaglianese's activity on the Center Stage: Restoring the Schine to the Spotlight Facebook group "a lot of inappropriate stuff."

CCAC board member and building committee chair Tim Kerstetter — who believes the board should add members and possibly rebrand the project — sympathized with the council's critics.

"Just seeing an empty building in town, the building sits for years and years and nothing's visually being done from the outside — I can see why people would have that feeling," he said. "But it's hurtful because there are a lot of people donating an awful lot of time for the betterment of the project."

Its head down, the CCAC went about righting its relationship with the state historic preservation office while working with Beardsley Design Associates and Bouley Enterprises to grasp what was a greater asbestos problem than previously believed. Loperfido said such work may be unglamorous, but it's far from unimportant.

"Just because you don't see movement doesn't mean there's stagnation," Loperfido said. "The movement is behind the scenes — it's just not time for you to see it."

The arrival of project manager and Bouley project executive Todd Coleman in early 2014 broke the silence around the Schine — but not the skepticism. The CCAC board was present but did not personally help at the public cleanup nights Coleman organized, several volunteers told The Citizen.

Even Coleman had his issues with the council, Gaglianese said.

"I witnessed the arts council, whom Todd was frantically trying to help, fight and stonewall him on every issue or suggestion," Gaglianese said. "I feel that he was up against impossible odds by constantly having to battle with a defiant and uncooperative board."

The CCAC plans to regain the community presence it lost when Coleman left Bouley later in 2014 by forming an advisory committee to shape the Schine project message, as well as a "high-end" fundraising committee, Loperfido said.

To solve the marquee problem, he said, the board is looking at the possibility of fitting the structure with a truck wrap. The council has spent $2,600 on Plexiglas patches for the marquee, and many of them were knocked down by South Street winds because the panels could not snap fully into the structure's warped grooving.

Funding even work that minor will be a challenge: The CCAC has only a few thousand dollars in the bank. Kerstetter said its major fundraiser, Artini, raises about $3,000. That's eaten up by $2,500 in accounting fees and about $1,200 in website fees annually, Loperfido said.

The board president also revealed that his, Carabajal's and Vice President Colin Sullivan's terms will be up in March. He has "a few ideas" about his replacement, he said.

The CCAC board tries to match new members to the Schine's needs, Loperfido said, but is turned down by 90 percent of the people it asks to join. The opposite is rare: He couldn't recall anyone asking to be on the board and being rejected. His picture of the board conflicts with that of Paul Lattimore Jr., who said he expressed interest in becoming a member to Loperfido a couple of years ago but never heard back from him.

Whoever steps into CCAC board's leadership roles will inherit a deficit of public confidence in the Schine project: 64.51 percent of 900 respondents in a recent reader poll by The Citizen said they think the Auburn Schine Theater will never be restored.

"I hope they're wrong," said Loperfido, who agrees with the 19.8 percent that think it will be five to 10 years before the Schine project is finished.

However, he declined to estimate how much it would cost.

14. Jim Loperfido

Cayuga County Arts Council board President Jim Loperfido, left, talks about the future of the Auburn Schine Theater at a public meeting in December 2014.

The future

Perhaps the surest sign of progress in the Cayuga County Arts Council's 20-year effort to restore the Auburn Schine Theater is the rising value the council attaches to the building.

In 2009, the last year the CCAC's extended tax return was available, it reported the Schine building and its 16 South St. land parcel as being worth $991,768. The number rose steadily over the previous decade through a value called "construction in progress." While the building's base value remained about $356,000, each year from 2003 to 2007 the CCAC added as little as $59,932 and as much as $145,205 via "construction in progress."

"When you get grant money for this type of project and you're doing improvement, everything is added into that improvement," said Brenda Kayn, who filed the CCAC's tax returns during that time. "Not just the materials, but everything you spend improving, remodeling — it all gets capitalized, added to the cost of the building."

The rising value has led some critics to speculate the CCAC plans to sell the building. Current Board President Jim Loperfido said "the council is not open to the idea of selling the theater, and never has been." On the contrary, fellow board member and previous President Dia Carabajal, who is also running for an Auburn City Council seat this fall, said the CCAC would weigh any offer under the advice of legal counsel.

Local music promoter Art Wenzel said he made one such offer to Carabajal and was told the Schine's sale price was $1 million. Carabajal said she didn't consider Wenzel's offer serious, and denies replying to it with a price.

With or without "construction in progress," the CCAC's valuation of the building sharply contrasts its current assessment by the city of Auburn: $187,000. As a direct comparison, it was $175,000 in 2009 — when the CCAC valued it at almost a million dollars.

Fred Farrell, who personally appraised the property for the city, said he based his assessment on the fact the building isn't currently fit for the purpose with which it was designed by architect John Eberson and built by Goulder Construction 77 years ago this Tuesday. He even factored the movie-going public's shift toward Redbox and on-demand viewing into his valuation.

"I don't think you can get a $1 million value out of it because it doesn't have a function. It's a shell," he said. "Cost doesn't always equal value."

However, Farrell continued, there is a scenario in which the Schine is worth $1 million: If it has a future to go with the finished building.

If the theater can function in the 21st century like restored contemporaries the Landmark Theatre in Syracuse, the Smith Opera House in Geneva or the Stanley Theater in Utica, the Schine could even be worth as much as $3 million, Farrell said.

Planning such sustainability has been a priority of Loperfido's term as president. Despite 1993 and 2001 feasibility studies supporting the function of a 1,600-seat theater in downtown Auburn, the success of Auburn Public Theater, which opened in 2005, necessitated a second look, he said. With a 200-seat main stage and 65-seat cinema it seats far fewer people, but it lessened the need for a local artist meeting space nonetheless.

Angela Daddabbo, artistic director of Auburn Public Theater, said walking to the Schine to see movies was an experience she doesn't want today's Auburnians to be denied.

"I, personally, would be very daunted by the size and the scope of the project," she said about programming events for a venue the Schine's size — before acknowledging that Auburn Public Theater had its doubters, too.

How to sustain the Schine is actually a source of agreement among both CCAC board members and its critics: It would have to be capable of hosting music, theater, film and other performing arts, in addition to public events like weddings. Many suggested that its fixed seats should be replaced by convertible ones to accommodate such a range of functions.

Several other adjustments to the building would have to be made to attract the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival, whom Schine proponents have courted since it announced — and later canceled — plans to build a $7.8 million performing arts center on State Street. 

In a 2010 letter to the editor in The Citizen, Ed Sayles, then the festival's producing artistic director, said its presentation of shows at the Schine would require constructing a dock to load scenery, raising its roof to fly in that scenery, and also expanding the stage while carving out space for an orchestra pit.

Sayles said CCAC architects told him at a 2007 meeting that those and other needed renovations would raise the cost of the Schine project to $12.5 million. His letter was disputed by the building's former manager, Todd Gaglianese, who argued that it could meet the festival's needs in a much smoother manner than Sayles described.

Loperfido said the premise of the CCAC's overture to Sayles was that the festival would only cover the costs of its required changes, not the total Schine price tag. The resulting figure would be closer to the cost of the Schwartz — something the festival would realize when it "comes to their senses," Loperfido said.

Brett Smock, who succeeded Sayles in 2014, has told the council the Schine doesn't fit into the festival's plans, Loperfido said.

Smock declined to be interviewed for this story, but released a statement: "I support the Schine and wish them all the best in their efforts. Once the vision and business plan for the venue is complete, I will be happy to discuss producing shows at the new Schine theater."

The time until there's a new Schine in which to present anything remains the marquee question. That its restoration still drags along after 20 bumpy years — that its interior is still millions of dollars away from looking like the bold firmament of its heyday — is more than enough reason for the CCAC's current leadership to step away, critics believe.

"The current CCAC board hasn't the manpower, knowledge nor resources to effectively move this project forward," Gaglianese said. "Given the current condition of the theater and the total lack of forward motion, the arts council has proven that they are not fit for stewardship of a historic landmark."

Carabajal dismissed such calls.

"Sometimes people think that just because they complain, we're supposed to turn over the keys to them," she said.

Loperfido, for his part, admits the Schine's restoration has taken "much longer than my naive mind thought it would."

All theater restoration efforts — the Landmark, the Smith and the like — have encountered their share of setbacks, noted Karen Colizzi Noonan, a former CCAC member who went on to become president of the Theatre Historical Society of America.

But none, she continued, have lingered as long as the Auburn Schine Theater.

"I don't know any theaters that can withstand what that one has," she said. "I think that building must have the most incredible heart."

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


Features editor for The Citizen.