Having temporarily closed last week due to an ongoing dispute between a partner and the owners of the West Chatham’s ICE Theater, Alisa Starks, co-owner, said the theater would reopen this Friday.
According to a reliable source, the ongoing battle that led to the closure is between Mrs. Starks, her husband, Donzell, and prominent businessman Michael Silver who became a partner with the couple in 2007. The dispute began in late 2010 when the Starks fought to upgrade the theater and Silver allegedly blocked their efforts.
“As a result, the theater has suffered over the last two-years,” said the source who asked not to be named. When asked how, the source said, “The Starks wanted to convert to a digital system and to make other capital improvements but Silver has blocked their efforts.”
Under the partnership, the Starks own the property and the theater with Silver that sits on 11-acres once owned by Home Depot. However, the Starks separately own the operations of the theater.
Sources said because Silver is the manager of the partnership, he reportedly fired the black security firm the Starks had employed and hired a white one. Sources say there was no cost benefit for the transition. Sources said the Starks are still upset over that exchange. Sources said Silver allegedly blocked their efforts to go digital like other large movie theaters.
When contacted, Mr. Silver said, “I never managed the theater. I have ownership interests.” He also denied firing the black security guard company and replacing it with a white firm. “This is a good community and it should be there for the community,” Silver told this reporter.
“As a property owner, I am very committed to Chatham, to the community and continuous improvement programs for the theater. I’d rather not say it. I will show it,” said Silver who also denied allegations that he blocked the Starks from going digital. “We are committed to a digital program.”
Asked about the eviction notice, Mr. Silver denied allegations that he was trying to evict the Starks. “I wasn’t trying to evict the Starks. We are reopening the theater as of this Friday. The Starks were attempting to buy” out his interest. “We gave them a lot of months to do that. There was an understanding that they agreed to if they can’t purchase the theater, they would allow us to manage the building. That was agreed to,” said Silver.
“The theater is in need of a continued modernization program. We need to keep it for the community. It requires capital, maintenance and the outreach programs. I am not the manger of the theater. The theater is being operated by John Scaletta,” Silver said.
But, reliable sources say the Starks are quite upset and stunned over Silver’s latest move to evict them from the theater and property they own, and his move came at a time when the Starks was close to a deal to refinance the theater without Silver in the picture. They had an agreement to buy Silver out of their partnership. They had set a date to close their theater at the end of September and reopen it without Silver.
Sources said, “It appears Silver, who was a trusted friend for years, is trying to force the Starks out through an eviction process. As a partner, Silver controls the lease, capital improvements and real estate.”
The Starks mission has always been to have minority involvement specifically with African Americans at the ownership and theater levels to reflect the community. She and her husband have been in business for the past 15-years.
“It would never have been our decision to close the theater for even a day,” Mrs. Starks said. “We’ve been through many partnerships. When we opened our doors, we had Cineplex Odeon as our partner. Shortly after we opened our doors, they merged with Loews Cineplex. We never closed to make that transition,” she said.
“When Sony Lowes went bankrupted, we hired Marcus Theatres to run our theater operations. We never closed the theaters. We later terminated our agreement with Marcus Theatres and hired a smaller more affordable companyŠ. We never closed the theater,” she said.
“It is a little disheartening this time to have an investor make such a drastic decision to impact the business. Closing the doors like that impacts the employees who will not be able to work. They are without a job. There was resistance to even giving them their paychecks,” Mrs. Starks said disagreeing with the way in which this was handled. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“We’ve been in battle for awhile. We are partners, but we knew he had gone behind our backs and started an eviction process without our knowledge. But, once we found out, we entered into an agreement to buy him out. The closing was imminent. He had a stay on the eviction and was adamant about taking it all the way,” Mrs. Starks said. “Once the agreement was reached to take him out of the partnership, he put a stay on the eviction. Why do this is beyond me.”
The Starks had asked the lender for 30-more days to buy Silver out. Instead, their partner slapped an eviction notice on the theater. “It’s devastating because we are torn over the loss of jobs for our 35 or 40 employees.”
Asked about their theater at 62 and Western theater, Mrs. Starks said they still own that and like their West Side Theater they do not have a partner. Explaining, she said, “We closed Lawndale and Western in 2007 and brought in this partner (Silver) to help us go forward with Chatham so we never had to close Chatham.
“We reopened Lawndale in 2011 with some new market tax credit funding and we’re planning to redevelop the Western property and reopen in 2013,” Mrs. Starks explained.
Asked if it is true they owed the city amusement tax, Mrs. Starks said, “That was false. We are basically current.” When asked about allegations that they were having ongoing legal battles with movie studios, she also denied those news reports. “If that were the case, they would not be giving us film to show movies,” she said calling the allegations “ridiculous.”
Mrs. Starks also denied allegations that the Inner City Entertainment owns the Biograph, Water Towers and other theaters. That is not true. It was a company called Meridian Entertainment. Don was president and I was vice president of marketing. That was a separate company. Our three theaters never had issues” with the city’s amusement tax.
“In fact, if anything, the city owes us,” she said. “In 1996, the city awarded us TIFF money for our Western Theater (62nd and Western). We were awarded $9.75 million. We had started to get reimbursement but before we closed we only got half the money. That money could have prevented us from ever closing if the city had disbursed those monies timely.
“In Chatham, we didn’t start getting reimbursements until the spring of 2008 and we got most of it all at once and Western we never got. We probably got about $4.5 million of the $9.75 million we were supposed to get. Reporters like to keep talking about we got awarded money that we never got. The city approved the TIFF; however, the Starks never received all of the funds that were approved.
Starks said the money is probably still sitting there targeted for Tax Increment Funds (TIF). “The city had conceptually set aside the financing for us. We had fulfilled all of our obligations in building the facility…and we got distracted because we were in the midst of partnership changes. It became Don and I’s fight to get it (the TIF funds) back. They dragged the process on and on. We got less than half the money,” she stated.
When contacted, Scaletta denied firing a black security firm and replacing it with a white one. “When I called looking for security during the transition, I did not ask about race. I hired a company to provide us with temporary security during this transition.” He said the movie companies were very concerned about the safety of their trademark movies.
What ever their disagreements are, the Starks, Silver and Scaletta said the show will reopen this Friday.
Chatham definitely needs this business.