District Flip Flops on Support of Historic Lincoln Theatre

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The fate of DC’s only government-owned theater awaits its doom as city officials starve it of the necessary funds to keep afloat. The historical Lincoln Theatre located on the U Street corridor has been an entertainment Mecca for African Americans since the early 1920s.

The Lincoln was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1993 because of significant events that contributed to the social, educational, artistic and historical heritage and culture of America. So why the big fuss about maintaining the structure?

“This was on a list that also included several priorities involving city services like funding for more police officers, and disability and homeless assistance, among other priorities.  Therefore, the funding source dried up in the wake of more immediate and critical needs,” wrote Doxie A. McCoy, senior communications manager of the executive office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

Although the theatre is owned by the District government, it is managed by the non-profit U Street Theatre Foundation. In 2008, the (unpaid) non-profit organization was slated to receive a five-year license agreement with the District to continue and expand its management of the theater.

But did that happen? “No, said Kent Cushenberry II, chairman of the board of directors U Street Theatre Foundation. Reportedly, the foundation has had a historic problem of not being able to generate enough revenue to cover expenses. Lincoln remained open by a succession of government subsidies.

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One board member and councilman pointed out that in FY 2011 and 2012 there is no operating subsidy and none of the capital improvement monies have been spent. “It’s time for the city to step up and determine seriously how it can preserve the Lincoln. Stop blaming the community board and provide immediate cash needed to honor our commitments. The city should determine a new structure of governance,” said DC Councilman Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). “People are made to believe the Lincoln gets all this money when in fact it’s getting nothing compared to privately owned theaters that the city graciously supports.”

In 2007, the U Street Theatre Foundation got an emergency $200,000 cash infusion from the city, plus another $1.5 million for capital investments to the 90-year-old structure. In 2008, former Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced a plan  to preserve the theater by developing the parking lot behind it, but  the plan never came to be, reportedly due to lack of interest by developers.

“The Lincoln has been kept on bread and water year after year and it seems the city has just washed its hands of it. The city gives millions to Arena Stage, Studio, and Shakespeare Theaters. We actually gave the Ford Theater a $10 million check and we don’t own any of these theaters. While all of this was happening the only theater that the city owns was treated so badly,” said Graham. Without operating funds, the Lincoln faces closing its doors permanently by December.

“Mayor Gray values the Lincoln Theatre’s historical significance and its contribution to the rich cultural life of the city. He also believes the board should consider all options to keeping its doors open,” wrote McCoy in a release.

Senior members of the administration were assigned to reach out to the foundation chairman earlier this month to discuss the financial situation and to help with developing strategies to address it. The mayor’s office said the calls were never returned. Cushenberry denied the allegation. “That’s absolutely not true. In fact, until the media started showing up, no one would return our calls or meet with us,” said Cushenberry.

On Oct. 5, Victor Hoskins, deputy mayor for planning and economic development, met with the theater board to discuss recommendations to ensure its viability. His message, “There are no funds available to assist the theater,” Cushenberry remembered Hoskins said.

Cushenberry said the most disturbing thing is that many of the officials sent to discuss the issues at the Lincoln don’t understand the model of its community board as it was laid out by the city. “As its owner, the city has the responsibility of the maintenance of the Lincoln Theater as if it were a recreation center, government housing facility, or downtown leased municipal building, not the theatre’s community board.”

Board members brought to the attention the example that the HVAC system has not been working for two years. “The capital improvement monies are just sitting there. At least the city should take care of its own facility unless it has something else in mind which has not been brought to our attention,” Cushenberry said.