Firehouse also home to large ballroom $4.3 million project, two years in making, to be dedicated today

October 16, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

A new 22,000-square-foot fire station in Clarksville opens today, though an adjacent ballroom and conference center that will seat 500 is threatening to overshadow Howard County's second-largest firehouse.

The elegant brick building housing the Ten Oaks Ballroom and Fifth District Volunteer Fire Station at Routes 108 and 32 took two years to build and cost $4.3 million -- much of it financed by county bonds.

The complex, intended to be one of the premier wedding and special-occasion facilities in the county, will be dedicated at 6 p.m. today. The ceremony is open to the public.

The ballroom's first formal event will be held tomorrow, when the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department celebrates its 50th anniversary at a black-tie gala. The first Clarksville station opened on Oct. 16, 1948. That building was torn down two weeks ago after the fire department moved into the new building.

Although volunteer fire companies often have banquet halls, the Ten Oaks Ballroom is unusual for its grandeur and financing.

The fire station-ballroom cost $4.3 million, with the county issuing bonds worth $3 million to cover construction costs.

The Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department will repay the money lent by the county, using proceeds from rentals of the ballroom, said County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

"The county will wind up not paying one cent of the costs for the project," Ecker said yesterday. "That money will not come out of the taxpayers' wallets."

Ecker said anyone critical of the scale of the fire station and ballroom would "really have a beef with the volunteer fire department, not the county."

The county government and fire department will get free use of the hall a few times a year. A large community room will be used by groups when the ballroom is in use.

The fire station-ballroom is on nearly 4 acres of land within walking distance of the River Hill Village Center. F. Patrick Marlatt, chief of the Fifth District Volunteer Fire Department, said a new, larger ballroom was always envisioned after it was decided that a new firehouse would be built on the site.

"We've always had a hall at the station that's been used for everything from meetings and training to community gathering and Boy Scout troop meetings," Marlatt said. "The old hall was used for parties, weddings and fund-raisers -- everything. The demand for it was tremendous. It was in use 16 hours a day."

'Obligation to the community'

Volunteer firefighters see themselves "as more than emergency responders. We're part of the community," he added. "We live here, work here, go to church here. We don't come in, do a shift and go home. We have an obligation to the community so that they know when there's a need, people can come here."

Though the fire department owns the station, ballroom facility and parking lot, three of the area's best-known caterers -- Cuisine Catering, Putting on the Ritz, and Zeffert and Gold Catering -- will run the day-to-day business.

Groups will be able to rent the hall for between $500 and $1,650 per event. More than 75 events have been booked, said Bobby Mitchell, owner of Putting on the Ritz and a partner in Ten Oaks Inc., the catering consortium.

Mitchell said the location -- on the edge of one of Columbia's wealthiest neighborhoods -- will be an enormous draw.

"This part of Clarksville is a great -- and growing -- area," he says. "It's definitely the place to be at right now. There are big, beautiful homes all around and people will be coming from D.C. and Baltimore to use this space."

Mitchell said the Ten Oaks ballroom should fill a vacuum in the county for large-scale party spaces left by the closing later this year of the Spear Center, a 500-seat space overlooking Lake Kittamaqundi in the Rouse building at the center of Columbia.

"Many of our clients told us that they needed an elegant location in the Columbia-Clarksville area," said caterer Aaron Gold, one of the partners in the catering project and co-owner of Zeffert and Gold caterers. "When the Spear Center closing was announced, we could not ignore the requests."

The Rouse Co. decided to close the Spear Center to the public to use it for corporate functions. Rouse officials say they have stopped taking reservations.

The Ten Oaks Ballroom has a 100-foot-long grand ballroom that can be partitioned off with soundproof walls into two or three rooms. It has Italian crystal chandeliers, a 70-foot-long dance floor, a kitchen and fireplace in the lobby.

Built for expanding area

Ecker and Marlatt say it is not out-of-character for a volunteer fire department to operate such a large banquet facility. "They built it big in order to have more space for the people of an expanding area to go," Ecker said.

Marlatt said he realized early in the site's development stage that an organized professional organization would be needed to run the business at the ballroom.

"The demands of operating a facility like this are enormous," Marlatt said. "It was too much to ask volunteers to do."

The old hall was one-third the size of the new one and cost about $350 for each event.

The center's parking lot -- paid for by the State Highway Administration -- will be used by the public as a free parking area during the week. "Our demand for parking will be nights and weekends," Marlatt said. "This land is very, very expensive. And it's very limited there. This will work out well for everyone."

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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