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By Bruce Jackson

The Market Arcade Film and Arts Centre in downtown Buffalo is the only eight-screen downtown theater in the United States owned by its own community. It is on death watch.

One of the rooms in the center is used on a continuing basis by Road Less Traveled Productions, a terrific local theater company. Another is used by Diane Christian and me for the Buffalo Film Seminars – about to start our 15th year. A huge range of community groups use the theater, some for focused film screenings, some for film festivals, some for single films of local significance.

This is a public theater. It is owned by the City of Buffalo and operated by a not-for-profit corporation. The corporation has been helped to survive in this difficult urban economy by Mike Clement of Dipson Theaters, who has worked to keep the theater alive, and by several foundations and corporations.

The theater has suffered from neglect by City Hall. The mayor’s office has not filled positions on the theater board. The city has not done the most elemental landlord’s work: The roof leaks, the air conditioning is unreliable and, most important, the projection equipment is obsolete. The city has said, basically, go derelict and we’ll find a buyer. It has refused to give the not-for-profit corporation a lease, which has blocked us from seeking funding to make improvements such as digital projection equipment and raked seating. Nothing has been done to improve that theater for decades.

The citizens of Buffalo deserve better. This isn’t a theater that should be taken off our backs by a suburban developer. It is a theater we should embrace and enable. It is a major public resource.

The Buffalo Common Council wanted to help the theater go digital. The city’s major foundations wanted to help the Council do that. But the mayor’s office blocked it. Everybody was in place to help us have a people’s theater in the heart of the city, but the mayor’s office said, “no.” That seems to me lunatic.

The city’s Strategic Planning Office is now working with a single suburban developer to take over that property. A request for proposal is being designed for that single developer. Neither the Strategic Planning Office nor the potential developer has talked to a single one of us who uses it. The people in the community who use that theater, the various groups who for years have presented things in that theater – we’re all cut out. I can only assume that once the deal is cut, the people are out, it will be one more downtown joint, made possible by public money.

At this point, it’s just about City Hall deals. This is not right. The center has been, and should continue to be, the people’s theater.

Bruce Jackson is SUNY distinguished professor and James Agee professor of American culture at the University at Buffalo. He is also vice chairman of the Market Arcade board of directors.