Historic site to be planning space for county performance center

Group promoting arts finds home on HCC campus


A group working to establish a performing arts center in Harford County took another step toward its goal by opening an office from which to run the effort.

The office, which opened last week, is located in Hays-Heighe House, a historic home on the campus of Harford Community College.

The group - a board of directors called the Center for the Visual and Performing Arts Inc. - is proposing a $40 million to $60 million facility that would include performing arts space, classrooms, restaurants and arts-related shops.

"Now the arts center feels like it's more than just a dream," said Jim Butcher, president of the board and a portrait painter.

The effort began in 2003 when Butcher began sounding out members of the local arts community about the idea of establishing permanent art space in the county. His first plan was to launch a museum at Rockfield Manor, a historic home in Bel Air. But the foundation that manages the historic site rejected the proposal, so Butcher began entertaining the idea of a full-fledged arts center.

Butcher enlisted Sallee Kunkel Filkins, who was the economic development administrator for Bel Air. A restoration architect who holds an MBA, Filkins was hired as the executive director of the five-member board, which comprises members of the local arts community.

"We are the only one of the eight major counties that doesn't have access to [a performing arts center]," said Filkins

The project is in the preliminary stages. Money to date from private donors and county government has gone to cover costs such as Filkins' salary, office operations and a study of possible locations. The study is expected to be completed in October.

Filkins, a Bel Air resident, said the facility would require about 10 acres centrally located in the county.

Board members are waiting until the study is finished to begin detailed planning for the facility but have come up with a wish list of features they would like to see.

"We will be a 24/7 center where the artists in residence can work whenever they are inspired to," Butcher said.

Preliminary plans call for a 1,200-seat performance space, as well as a smaller performance space with about 300 seats. There would be education, exhibition and presentation facilities for music, visual arts, theater, literary works and dance.

The vision also includes internships for students in technical support functions such as lighting or other backstage jobs. Board members are seeking a place where schoolchildren could visit on field trips.

Other features might include a restaurant, a cafe where visitors could perform during open-mike events, a museum and arts-related shops.

"We want to have businesses that complement the center," said Butcher. "If the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is playing here, we want attendees to have a place to eat dinner beforehand in a nice restaurant on location."

Most importantly, the county needs a place where the arts can flourish, Filkins said. There are very few places to hold performances, supporters say, and one of them - the William Amoss Center on the HCC campus - frequently is booked a year in advance.

"And it's too small to accommodate some of the groups we want to host," she said. "We need a place where we can host a show or a graduation without having to go out of the county."

Board members say that communities with cultural arts are rated as better places to live. Butcher pointed to recent articles in Southern Living magazine and other publications that rated the best places to live based on housing, cost of living and the cultural benefits.

"A strong cultural atmosphere is evident in all of the top places to live. We have exposure to the arts in Harford County," said Butcher. "But it's fragmented here, and we don't have a nucleus."

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