Ground broken on restoration of historic Howard Theatre

By Danielle Douglas
Monday, September 6, 2010

Ellis Development Group broke ground on the restoration of the District's historic Howard Theatre last week, following a series of delays. At the ceremony, the D.C.-based developer also introduced Blue Note Entertainment Group, owners of New York's iconic Blue Note Jazz Club, as the operator for the venue, putting to rest months of speculation.

The Shaw neighborhood landmark, once the premier venue for the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Marvin Gaye, was originally slated to reopen in time for its centennial anniversary this August. But scraping together the financing for the $24 million project proved difficult in the midst of the recession, developer Chip Ellis said.

Back in 2006, his firm was awarded the contract to redevelop the city-owned building. Ellis formed a nonprofit, Howard Theatre Restoration, tasked with managing the property under a 75-year lease and raising money to complete the project. The city floated $12 million in grants and tax incremental financing for the rehab, while nearly $2 million was raised through private donations. That still left a chunk of financing needed.

"With the credit crunch and donations being down, we found it extremely challenging to find adequate investors to fund the project," said Malik Ellis, chief operating officer of Ellis Development Group. Eagle Bank recently agreed to lend the remaining sum.

In the midst of raising money for the theater, the former executive director of the nonprofit accused board members in 2009 of mishandling payments for work on the restoration. The developer, in response to the accusation, commissioned law firm Venable to review the nonprofit's operations. Jeffrey Tenenbaum, head of Venable's nonprofit practice, said the allegations were "generally unfounded" and "internal controls and procedures have [since] been fully implemented."

A year after that matter was cleared up, Nicholas Goldsborough Group, a consultant that the developer hired to help raise money for the redevelopment, filed a $57,000 collections suit against the nonprofit. The case was settled out of court, according to the developer.

Past troubles aside, the real test for the project will start once it gets up and running next November. Making the venue profitable may be challenging in a down economy and in an area that is home to popular haunts such as the 9:30 club. "We're going to be complementary to everything that is going on," Chip Ellis said. "But for the most part, we are talking about a venue that will speak to its roots and its history, and that's jazz, rhythm and blues, funk, soul and gospel."

Steven Bensusan, president of Blue Note, said the Howard, similar to the company's venues in New York City, such as the B.B. King Blues Club & Grill and the Highline Ballroom, will offer flexible space that can be set up as a supper club or a festival-style hall. The developers plan to set aside 24 days a year for the venue to be utilized for community gatherings, such as lectures.

Ellis Development is working with contractors Whiting-Turner and Martinez & Johnson to breathe new life into the theater, which will retain many of its original architectural features. The Howard shuttered two years after the 1968 riots, which crippled the U Street corridor. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and several attempts have since been made to resuscitate the theater.

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