Will a North Broad revival help historic Freedom Theatre?

Freedom Theatre has friends in high places.

Denzel Washington called its training program “unique and exciting” in a commercial. Its alumni include Erika Alexander of “The Cosby Show” and Boyz II Men’s Wanya Morris.

But Freedom, thought to be the oldest African-American theater in the country, is in trouble. Repairs need to be made to “the electric, the plumbing, the carpentry, the floors, the roof, the walls, the windows,” said consultant James Smallwood.

The institution’s spiral downward started in the 1990s, when it built the expensive John Allen Theater. Shows were scrapped, staff fled, and debt mounted. Today the theater is still limping along, more than $1 million in debt.

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Freedom, which sits at North Broad and Master streets, is located near a commercial strip eyed by some developers as the next big thing. Bart Blatstein wants a casino at the former site of the Inquirer and Daily News. Another developer envisions apartments at the historic Divine Lorraine.

Will the projects along North Broad save Freedom Theatre, or wipe it off the map?

The impact of development

Harris Steinberg, executive director of the design nonprofit PennPraxis, says the theater could benefit from nearby projects. “Were North Broad Street start to take off,” he said, “I think they’re poised probably, geographically, to be near kind of clusters of activity that they could then capitalize on.”

But Sandra Haughton, Freedom’s executive director, worries that development could actually do more harm than good. “I’ll never forget when they dedicated the lights that they’re putting up and down Broad Street, and one of the politicians said, ‘Ah! We’re lighting the way for the developers,'” she said. “All the community people gasped. They gasped. What are the developers lighting the way for us?” Haughton says some developers have pressured her to sell the theater’s two buildings, while others have ignored her requests to partner with them.

Seeking a savior

What she really needs, she says, is a philanthropist. But they routinely turn her away. “A funder will say, ‘You have a deficit. We can’t give you money,'” she said. “You gave the Kimmel money. It had a deficit. What’s the difference?” Haughton says that the theater deserves credit for moving forward. It is putting on shows again and teaching low-income children about the arts. “A grandmother sent her kids with an envelope that had $2, and she said, ‘This is all I got. My kids, could you please take my kids?'” said Haughton. “We were able to find a scholarship for her two young people.” Haughton argues that the Nutter administration should also chip in. The city and state are spending more than $12 million on street improvements to North Broad, but the Nutter administration doesn’t have plans to write another big check to Freedom Theatre soon. In 2007, the city gave more than $2 million from bond proceeds to Freedom Theatre for an unusual reason: to pay off its debts, including delinquent IRS taxes and old city water bills. The city began doling out another $250,000 grant to the the theater last year to fix its roof. Critics, like City Controller candidate Brett Mandel, question the spending. “It’s bad to take taxpayer dollars, to take from people in Philadelphia who are already paying too much in taxes, give to an organization that has built up tax bills, and pay those bills off,” he says. “It is horrible to use a bond for that purpose.” Mayor Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald says the city wanted to help a critical institution, and that the bond was used in a perfectly legal, appropriate way. “An important building was facing a level of deterioration that would harm its long-term preservation,” said McDonald. The city had plans to give Freedom Theatre more money, but withheld it because the nonprofit couldn’t prove it paid off the debts in the past, said McDonald. For her part, Haughton insists that she gave the city paperwork showing that it had.Haughton says Freedom Theatre worked for decades to get people to think about North Broad Street differently. Now that they finally are, she would hate for the theater to miss the renaissance.

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