IS MUSIC a necessity or a frill? Can Montgomery County taxpayers afford to help fund construction of a "world class" concert hall when schools and libraries need capital funds as well? Should construction be 100 percent publicly funded, or should private contributions be solicited too?
Those are a few of the issues that Montgomery County Council members are debating as they decide whether to allocate construction funds for a proposed 2,000-seat concert hall and education center at Strathmore Hall in North Bethesda.
Planned for construction by fall 2004 on the grounds of the Strathmore Hall Arts Center at 10701 Rockville Pike, the building would be a second home to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the permanent address for several Montgomery County arts organizations.
Preliminary drawings by William Rawn Associates of Boston show a concert hall built into the hillside, with three tiers of seats above the orchestra level and a curving roofline. A separate structure would house an education center with rehearsal space, classrooms and offices.
But construction cannot proceed unless the county agrees to help fund the project. County Executive Douglas M. Duncan favors a plan that calls for the county to cover half the cost of construction, with the state covering the other half.
Part of the problem is that the estimated construction cost has grown from $68 million last year to $88.9 million this year. Some elected officials have indicated they might have supported a $34 million expenditure but are less willing to commit to $44.5 million. They're also concerned that the cost may continue to rise.
During a hearing attended by nearly 100 people this week, public testimony was almost equally divided between proponents and opponents, with more than a dozen speakers taking each side.
Supporters argued that the concert hall is a prime example of "smart growth" and would put Montgomery County on the map as a cultural center. They said Strathmore Hall is an ideal location -- an established "arts park" within walking distance of a Metro station. They said the healthy economy and the prospect of obtaining matching state funds make this spring a good time for county officials to approve funds.
Opponents contested the project on several grounds. Some said it would add to the traffic congestion along Rockville Pike. Others expressed concerns about the expense, the funding plan and the choice of a hilly site. Marc Elrich of Takoma Park suggested that the hall be built in Wheaton or Silver Spring, where it might trigger more spinoff development. Richard Hoye, a mass transit advocate, said it wasn't adequately integrated with the Metro stop.
The sharpest difference of opinion involved the perceived need for the project.
Opponents said county funds would be better spent on a new Rockville library or school renovations or arts programs in the public schools. They said it was inappropriate for the entire bill to be paid with public funds.
"If this is a worthy project, let the private sector pay for it," said Karen Cooke, speaking for the Citizens Coalition of Grosvenor Metro Communities. "Please don't ask us, the taxpayers, to foot the bill for this."
Proponents noted that private funds are being raised but will go toward operating costs rather than construction. They argued that a concert hall and music education center are as important as a library and school repairs.
"Music is not a frill," said Piotr Gajewski, music director and conductor of the National Chamber Orchestra. "Music transcends language. Music moves everyone. We have the privilege of living in one of the wealthiest counties in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Perhaps the question to ask is whether concert halls should be built at all. If not here, then where? If not now, then when? If not by us, then by whom?"
The County Council has set March 10 as the deadline to receive public comments on the spending bill for Strathmore Hall. After that, members will vote on whether to appropriate funds for it, starting in the next fiscal year.
UM forum to examine African architecture
The University of Maryland's School of Architecture will hold a free symposium tomorrow to explore the key elements of African architecture and how they can be applied to architectural projects.
During the conference, "Defining African Architecture," presenters will examine the historic, geographic, stylistic and cultural influences that have shaped building designs throughout Africa. The symposium will be held from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Room 204 of the architecture school, on the College Park campus.