When I read the words “sale” and “Freedom Theatre” in the same text message this week, my brain screamed: You can’t sell Freedom Theatre!
I don’t go as often as I should, but in my head at least, it’s my neighborhood theater. It’s the heartbeat of Philly’s black arts scene. So I’m happy to report that the rumors circulating about the sale of New Freedom Theatre are only partially correct.
Yes, a significant portion of the historic North Broad Street property has been placed on the market.
But there are no plans to sell the 299-seat theater where African American artists such as Broadway’s Leslie Odom Jr., of Hamilton fame, and Erika Alexander from the Fox sitcom Living Single got their start. In other words, the theater itself will remain intact. It’s the space that houses back-of-the-house operations that is up for sale.
Sandra Norris Haughton, Freedom’s executive director, says officials are open to a number of arrangements, including selling the back part of the 54,000-square-foot building; entering into a long-term lease arrangement; or maybe partnering with a hotel or condo developer. The asking price for the 32,500-square-foot portion of the building that’s up for grabs is $3.5 million. That also includes a 15,000-square-foot empty lot. So far, a handful of local developers have expressed interest in turning the property into anything from a small hotel to a shared work space.
“I’m open to anyone that really understands who we are and what our mission is and what we’re trying to do,” Haughton said Wednesday as we sat in the theater’s high-ceilinged lobby.
She plans to use proceeds from the sale to offset the theater’s nagging debt of just under $1 million, to leave an endowment for future generations, and to invest in new programming.
Freedom really could use a major cash infusion. Maintenance of the property, which once was the home of the famed 19th century actor Edwin Forrest, is costly, with electric and gas bills running well into the thousands each month.
“We’re no different from any other nonprofit that has an asset that’s not performing [in] that we have to figure out, how do we keep our mission but how do we better utilize the asset that we have?” Haughton told me.
The timing is great, considering all the development taking place on North Broad. Just last week, the once-dilapidated Divine Lorraine, which is undergoing a massive renovation, hosted a lobby reveal party to showcase its progress.
“People are excited because they see attention being focused on North Broad, but they are nervous because they don’t know what it means for them,” said Shalimar Thomas, executive director of North Broad Renaissance. “You just hear, ‘Oh my God, the Freedom Theatre might get sold! You can’t sell the Freedom Theatre!’”
What people don’t realize is that Freedom sits on a lot of prime real estate. I toured it Wednesday and was amazed at the building’s expanse — nine loft apartments and lots of offices just sitting empty, rehearsal spaces with mirrored walls and beautiful hardwood floors, an intimate performance space with black-painted walls. A savvy developer could really get creative and transform all that space into something special.
Freedom hopes to have a deal by the end of the year. It can’t come too soon for the struggling operation.
“It’s amazing,” Haughton said of Freedom’s supporters. “They don’t come [to performances], but if you go away, they’ll be like ‘Oh, my God.’”
She added: “In the meantime, I’ve got to try and keep the lights on and the water on.”
Here’s hoping that a sale will bring a final curtain call to Freedom’s financial woes.