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What's next for two downtown icons?
Shea's working on financing to reopen 610-seat theater once home to Studio Arena

The theater once home to Studio Arena will have a second act as soon as five banks agree to forgive a total of $675,000 in loans, which would allow the building to be transferred to a new operating entity.

The nearby Shea's Performing Arts Center is trying to get the financing in order so it can return the 610-seat theater to use. Studio Arena Theatre, the regional company that produced plays there for decades, went bankrupt in 2007 and no longer exists.

If the effort succeeds, Studio Arena would be renamed and programmed with "straight plays" rather than musical theater -- Shea's stock in trade -- as well as being rented for theatrical and nontheatrical events, according to Anthony C. Conte, Shea's chief executive officer.

"We would expect to have a mix of product from both professional, out-of-town theater companies and local theater companies," Conte said. "Our expertise is presenting and programming, and that's what we will be doing. We'll say more once the building is secured."

Theater veteran Saul Elkin said reviving the space in the heart of the Theater District would be a welcome addition to Buffalo's active theater scene. "I think the idea of bringing in new theater is wonderful. The idea of partnering with local groups to produce locally in that space is also terrific. I can only hope it does, in fact, happen," said Elkin, artistic director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park and the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York.

Studio Arena Theatre had been Western New York's oldest, largest and most prestigious theater, as well as its only Actors Equity theater, which means it used union actors and stagehands to produce its season.

Shea's took over operation after Studio Arena's financial woes mounted due to a graying audience, declining donations and, some thought, uninspired programming. Plans to resurrect the theater space are contingent on the five banks releasing their claim so it's not encumbered going forward. While there appears to be support for doing so, when this would happen continues to be an open question.

The group of five banks holding the loan -- lead bank HSBC Bank USA, along with participants M&T Bank, First Niagara Bank, KeyBank and Bank of America -- has tentatively agreed to write off the loan, sources say. As of now, the banks have agreed to maintain their lien, or claim to the property, but will not enforce that lien as long as the borrower and property stick to specified criteria, said First Niagara spokeswoman Leslie Garrity. That's "tantamount to forgiveness," she said.

"I'm not hearing anything that's telling me this agreement isn't going to go through," said a banking source familiar with the discussions. "I think the banks are in agreement. I just don't think they're in a position to discuss it [publicly] yet."

HSBC spokesman Neil Brazil, KeyBank spokeswoman Therese Myers and M&T spokesman Chet Bridger declined to comment, citing privacy and client confidentiality.

But Conte said he remains confident the loans will be forgiven and the transfer of the building will take place.

"We have been working with and negotiating with the banks, and are confident that in the relatively near future we will have a deal and continue the necessary legal remedies to secure the building," Conte said.

This isn't the first time the revival of the Studio Arena space has appeared to be near. The banks agreed to take similar action nearly three years ago, when a lawyer for Studio Arena announced the banks were entering into a "forbearance agreement" under which they would forgive their equal shares of the loan, or $135,000 per bank. The banks also had agreed to turn rights to the building over to 710 Main St., a not-for-profit created by Shea's to operate, program and maintain the building.

"I know discussions have been going for years. This came up a year ago, and I thought we were pretty close to an arrangement," said Kevin Murphy, Western New York district president for Bank of America, adding that the loan is not being handled locally by his team. "We were all sort of ready to go." He declined to comment further.

Once the banks sign, Conte said, the not-for-profit 710 Main St., with a three-member board distinct from Shea's, will go to court to take ownership of the building under foreclosure.

Conte said it's important to have the theater back in operation, since most of the other theaters in the Theater District have no more than 125 seats. Shea's, with 3,019 seats used for traveling Broadway shows and concerts, is the notable exception.

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com and jepstein@buffnews.com

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