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City gives New Heritage the boot

Theatre company says city didn't hold up its end of the bargain

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John Hadley walked through every hallway, every tiny room and the huge storage spaces of the old National Guard Armory with a shovel in hand. At least one homeless person was known to squat in the almost abandoned city building on Reserve Street and some vandals made their mark by way of several shattered windows. But Hadley's shovel wasn't for the glass shards, debris or the trash left by someone using the city for free room. Hadley scooped and scraped one rotting cat corpse after another from the Armory's neglected floors.

Hadley, the production manager for New Heritage Theatre Company undertook cat cleanup duty shortly after the city turned the Armory keys over to the nonprofit theater arts organization as part of a May, 2001 lease agreement. The Armory smelled of death back then, Hadley said.

"It was basically unfit for stage production from the beginning," said Hadley. "It was unsafe for a walk through."

According to the lease, New Heritage agreed to give the Armory a facelift and cleanup that would preserve the building's historic character, and in return, the city would lease the facility for $1 per year for up to 75 years. New Heritage held a ground-breaking ceremony in 2003, paved the dilapidated parking lot and invested more than $30,000 donated funds, in-kind contributions and volunteer hours to renovate the facility and among other things, rid it of that dead cat smell.

Workers envisioning a grand performance hall the average citizen could patronize felt safe enough inside the Armory to post a sort of blueprint of the future on the building's naked interior walls. "Gift Shop," read one sign on a would-be renovated corridor. "Lobby," read another. The building began to morph, Hadley said. But city officials recently said the new parking lot, clean building and vision fell shy of meeting the terms of the 2001 lease agreement, and they asked New Heritage to return the keys.

"We've never really been able to sit down and talk to the mayor," said Barbara Gile, New Heritage advisory board member. "It really didn't have to be this way."

Not knowing why the city would want to kick out a nonprofit group of thespians the previous administration supported with a "gentleman's agreement" has Gile miffed. And that the boot came so soon after officials from the Dave Bieter administration meet with the company in enthusiastic support has Gile and New Heritage Artistic Director Sandra Cavanaugh equally confused. For an explanation, some New Heritage supporters are looking at real estate values, a mighty fine parking lot and a facility that barely resembles or smells like the abused and still unoccupied building they worked to save and thinking ... is there a potential buyer, maybe? City officials withheld comment about the eviction citing pending lawsuits between New Heritage and the city. But court documents, public records and correspondence between the parties show the City of Boise didn't view the New Heritage ground-breaking ceremony with the same pomp held by the theatre company.

New Heritage submitted a $75 check to the City of Boise in 2003 as a prepayment of the rent on the Armory, according to correspondence from the company's attorneys. The city returned that check to the company on November 22, 2004, along with a notice of default on the lease agreement. Assistant City Attorney Ted Baird's letter of default to New Heritage noted that the rent prepayment was premature, because the lease term had not yet commenced. The 75-year lease would commence, according to the lease agreement, "concurrently with the onset of construction and renovation of the Armory building." A ground-breaking ceremony and improvements to the parking lot did not constitute renovation of the building, Baird wrote, adding italic emphasis to the word "building." And no renovation equals no trigger of the lease. Baird noted that the city was obliged to rent the Armory to New Heritage only if the company was successful in raising needed funds to renovate the building.

Gile said the company has been deep in fund-raising efforts since the beginning of the project and has even used some Hollywood connections to get bigwigs like Anthony Hopkins, Olympia Dukakis and Hector Elizondo to put their names and time behind New Heritage's growth efforts.

"We don't feel we're in a position to just walk away," Gile said. "We have so many donors who contributed to the cleanup and the parking lot. They gave New Heritage that money in good faith that we would lead the effort to convert that (Armory) into a performing arts facility. And we can't just walk away from all that money that they gave us and just turn it over to the city."

Cavanaugh eagerly illustrates the stark difference between the Armory the city previously used to store a hodgepodge of supplies and equipment and the post-New Heritage cleanup of the building with a slew of before and after pictures. The walls still bear the crisscrossed markings of cracked paint and sport a wooden interior that presents such a fire hazard, New Heritage couldn't even occupy the facility as office space. But Gile said they did all they could do for the building that exudes a kind of false strength with its concrete exterior shell. In a counter lawsuit, the theatre company says the city also agreed to uphold an end of the bargain but stalled on that promise.

Under an environmental assessment clause of the lease, the city agreed to clean up and remove of any hazardous material within the building, "take any and all necessary and appropriate measures to bring the premises into compliance with all applicable state or federal environmental laws prior to the commencement of the lease." At the Armory, this means dealing with lead paint and asbestos left behind from the building's former antiquated construction standards.

New Heritage says the city ignored the asbestos, put any further renovation on hold and stalled a vision to create a professional performing arts center anyone could access with pay-what-you-can shows, charitable outreach programs and special performances lead by casts of ill children. According to Cavenaugh and Gile, the eviction also put a dent in fund-raising efforts-after all, who would want to donate to a theatre company that just got an eviction notice?

Gile also thinks beyond the Armory walls, the eviction and a theatre company that must circulate its shows around the city to high schools and other established venues. What about other nonprofits leasing city space, she asked. Could they just as easily get an eviction notice?

"If they can do it to some of us, what's going to stop them from doing it to all of us?"