Q: What do you call a fire in Bellefonte?
I’ve been telling that joke, and variations on it (“The history of Bellefonte is a history of fires”) for years. In the wake of the Hotel DoDe and Garman Opera House fires last year, Bellefonte is moving forward. Lots of people aren’t happy. Myself, I’m sanguine about the matter. I’m so used to nothing good happening around here that my expectations are automatically set pretty low.
Today brings news that the Bellefonte Industrial Development Authority, the Borough group charged with figuring out what to do with the Garman, the DoDe, and the Cadillac Building a block south of here, have voted to accept Ara Kervandjian’s workforce housing project, dubbed the “Bellefonte Mews” plan, over a proposal from a group of 20 Bellefonte residents associated with the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association. The community members aren’t happy that we are losing one of these buildings in particular, the Garman. Believe me when I say I feel their pain. I love this town, and eyesores like the pit where the Bush House was really irk me. Unfortunately, reality is intervening in the vision of our town as some sort of arts mecca. There is real and actual demand for housing in our area. For a theater… not so much.
Even during the relatively prosperous late 1990s, the Garman didn’t seem profitable. Even before the previous owners took on more debt than the facility could support, you could tell it wasn’t going to make it. We saw lots of great movies there. My wife and I went as often as we could. I think the first film we saw there was the often-overlooked and emotionally difficult Monsoon Wedding. I remember seeing the midnight premiere of the first film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy there, too. We sat in the balcon for that one. But none of that seemed like the sort of business volume that would sustain a theater, restaurant, hotel, meeting rooms, and planned IMAX.
Long-time residents may also remember when the Garman did dinner theater. That didn’t work out either. And when they found mold, I knew the project was (and should be) doomed. Mold abatement alone would cost more than a community group could possibly afford.
I won’t miss the eyesore across the street from my office, although the white boards they put up in place of the burnt-out windows are an improvement.
The CDT article notes that the project is collectively being called “Bellefonte Mews.” This name bothered me at first. I found it casually insulting to its residents. The CDT article defines the term as “stables on buildings in the 19th century that are present on these buildings,” a sentence that is clearly at grammatical odds with itself (and par for the course with our poor-man’s Grauniad). The association of workers with horses felt wrong. But further research revealed that English mews are often quite sought-after residences. I just hope we aren’t importing the problems we’ve seen at the Beaver Farms Apartments into downtown.
All of that being said, I’m not happy to see these buildings go. Part of the charm of Bellefonte is lost every time we have a fire and tear down an old building.