New College Park Arts Center

March 04, 1993

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposal for a $83 million performing arts center at the University of Maryland College Park is widely viewed as a political tit-for-tat to win support from Washington-area lawmakers for an expanded Convention Center in Baltimore. But the two projects aren't comparable. The Convention Center would pay for itself; an arts complex would have to be subsidized by the state for years to come.

Still, there are good reasons to support the idea on its own merits. The proposed arts complex would be the only major theater in the Washington suburbs of Maryland. It would house a concert hall seating up to 1,500 people, a recital hall with 200 seats and two theaters with a total of 800 seats. Its primary use would be for student and faculty performances and productions by community arts groups such as the Prince George's Playhouse.

The largest space UM has for arts performances and classes is the 1,344 seat Tawes Theater, but the World War II structure is too small. Each year some 6,000 students take classes in music, theater and dance at the university, including about 460 graduate and undergraduate arts majors.

Mr. Schaefer has asked for $4.6 million in the next two years for initial planning and construction. Prince George's County officials have agreed to put up roughly $10 million ($5 million in bonds, $3 million in road improvements and $2 million from private contributions), the state will put up $12 million in general obligation bonds and the rest will come from University of Maryland revenue bonds. But the lawmakers still need assurances that cost overruns or other unforeseen expenses won't be paid out of state general funds.

That is why approval ought to be contingent on UM raising private money as well as issuing bonds. That's the way Prince George's is doing it and so should the university: private support for this cultural center is critical to its future success.

This is a worthwhile project. But $83 million represents an enormous investment in still uncertain times. Lawmakers owe it to their constituents to make sure Maryland can afford to follow through with the financing for this effort before committing the state and the university to such a costly project.

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