Town auditorium planned

Bel Air, county to jointly fund expansion of hall in new high school


Bel Air and Harford County will jointly finance a $2.5 million expansion of the auditorium in the planned new Bel Air High School, an addition that will provide a downtown venue for community arts events when the school opens in 2009.

Although the town and the county school board have yet to accept the proposal, officials from both groups have said they are amenable to it. The Bel Air town commissioners will vote Tuesday to fund about $1.5 million of the project during the next three years, with the county paying the remainder. The school board will consider the proposal at its July 26 meeting.

"We were never opposed to the issue," said Patrick L. Hess, a school board member. "Our concern was with timing and funding. We did not want to get behind."

Debate over expanding the new auditorium from 540 to 800 seats had threatened to delay construction of the $75 million school and push its opening beyond August 2009.

The plan calls for a three-story structure built on fields adjacent to the existing school, which opened in 1950. The old school will be razed when its 1,660 students move into the new building.

"We are definitely interested in a joint venture that would benefit not only the students, but the entire community as well," said Bel Air Mayor Terence O. Hanley. "This may be our last opportunity to do something of this magnitude in Bel Air."

The location - just off U.S. 1 in downtown Bel Air - would be ideal for the center and offers land to expand the building. School events would have priority for auditorium use, but the town would have ample dates for its events, such as concerts with the Bel Air Orchestra or community theater, officials said.

"We would keep the agreement as simple as possible," Hanley said. "We would not interfere in any way with the school. We are thinking anywhere from four to eight venues a year. We would like to brand ourselves as the center for the arts in Harford County."

The concept of shared usage is working well in Howard County, where the Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts has been housed for 10 years in Wilde Lake High School. The 739-seat center was built through a public and private partnership that included $1.2 million raised by the Howard County Arts Council.

The school system maintains control but the council has an agreement that makes 30 days annually available to community groups such as the 100-piece Columbia Orchestra.

"This has been a good match for us," said Coleen West, Howard Arts Council director. "The theater showcases community arts groups who are thankful to have the space. The costs of maintaining a stand-alone theater are astronomical."

Education officials had feared changing the building's "footprint" this late in the design process might delay the permitting process. But with the partnership announced Friday, the permits and applications should be able to move forward.

"The funds will be available over the next three construction years," said County Executive David R. Craig. "I hope this lets the system move forward with the design."

Kathleen Sanner, school system director of planning and construction, has been unable to proceed with the school until the final square footage is settled.

"School construction is a unique business with a lot of applications and reviews necessary before we can put a shovel in the ground," Sanner said.

Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for operations, warned of escalating construction costs, up 4 percent last month alone.

"We are living on the edge in the construction department," he said. "Each project has issues down the road. Construction does not happen the day you submit your application. We have to get in the queue for permits. Everything will have to go perfect from this day on."

Auditorium space is often the costliest and usually the least used space in any school, Sanner said. Plans for the new school include a triple gymnasium, the size of three basketball courts, in case the entire student body needs to assemble.

Educators have found that an auditorium with a smaller seating area encourages repeat performances before an audience that is less intimidating in its size for performers, Sanner said.

"Even with 800 seats, you would still have a high school performance venue, not the backstage square footage to support professional productions," Sanner said.

Hanley said he is satisfied with the expansion and hoping some funding will remain to improve the backstage.

Several school board members wanted to act on the school design last week, before the town had secured funding. Thomas L. Fidler Jr., board vice president, argued against voting on an issue that was not an official agenda item. He also asked his colleagues to consider the expansion. The board settled on a July 26 deadline.

"If we could expand to 800 seats, it would be enough to get the town started," Fidler said.

"Every dollar for the expansion and parking would be incurred by the town. We would have an operational agreement that high school activities would take priority. There would be an annual fee for usage," Fidler said.

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