Study bolsters county arts center

Residents shown to support hall for performances, exhibitions, conferences

May 18, 2008|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

The Harford County Center for the Arts is making plans to live up to its name.

Organized three years ago to build a home for the arts, the nonprofit group now has the results of a recently completed feasibility study to bolster its cause.

Members are searching for a location with about 22 acres, and are raising money. Preliminary estimates say it will cost about $52 million, excluding land and site development, to construct a facility that would house theaters, rehearsal halls, galleries, classrooms, a museum, a visitor's center and conference areas.

The $50,000 grant-funded study, completed by Janis Barlow & Associates, a Toronto-based arts consultant, concluded that the county's population would support a center. The research defined a market area with more than 400,000 arts enthusiasts who are seeking theater, arts and educational experiences.

The audience is already here in a county that will grow to nearly 275,000 in less than 10 years as the national military base expansion coming to Aberdeen Proving Ground brings as many as 30,000 residents to the area. An arts center would attract local residents and thousands more from outside Harford each year, officials said.

"The study looked at the cultural needs of the county and at demand," said Sallee Kunkel Filkins, executive director of the center that is temporarily housed in Tudor Hall, the former home of the Booth family of actors. "It identified what a cultural center should comprise and noted the demand for space for conferences, meetings and special events that is not available. This is not just a grand idea. The numbers are there."

Harford is the only one of Maryland's most populated counties that lacks an arts center, she said. Thousands of Harford residents leave the county every year to support the arts in other areas. Businesses are going to Baltimore for their retreats and high school graduations have to be scheduled at auditoriums larger than the county has available, Filkins said.

"We cannot afford to lose out to other areas," she said. "For every ticket sold, the average person spends an additional $27 on food and other services."

Robert A. Corea, the center's financial consultant, said, "There is a black hole here as far as facilities for conventions, exhibitions and retreats. I was surprised at how much demand and began looking for a structure that will be all about utilization. Every variable that we looked at said 'do this center.' "

Plans call for a 133,000-square-foot building, with parking for 1,500 vehicles. It would showcase music, drama, dance and visual arts. Its three theaters would have audience capacities ranging from 100 to 1,200 seats

"There is strong demand here for performance space," Filkins said.

Two theaters at Harford Community College are nearly booked through the next year. Various dance and theater groups have to compete with school events for space in area high schools and often the acoustics are not well-suited to musical productions. The space crunch sends many to Cecil County facilities to perform their programs.

As the county builds the new $80 million Bel Air High School, the town negotiated for additional space and the lighting and sound equipment vital to community arts events. Bel Air contributed about half of the $2.5 million cost to add 260 seats, bringing the auditorium's seating capacity to 800.

When the school opens in 2009, student programs will have priority use of the auditorium, but the town will be able to schedule several dates a year for traveling shows as well as groups such as the Bel Air Community Band and Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra.

"We pushed for a design of the Bel Air auditorium that would allow us to present it as a cultural arts venue," said Councilman James V. McMahan, a former town commissioner who now represents the Bel Air area on the county council. "This auditorium will give theater, musical and other arts a home."

McMahan said he will continue to support cultural arts in any form and understands efforts to build a more permanent home.

"But before we get there, there are many small steps to take," he said. "When it comes down to spending money, we have to find out the feasibility."

Arts board members have toured other centers throughout the area. They envision a facility that offers entertainment as well as educational opportunities.

"The successful center is one designed to cater to the needs of the market it serves," said Corea, who is working on a business plan for the center.

As members make plans for Harford's center, they will gather information from county recreation administrators, the school board, the library and Harford Community College, Filkins said.

"We want a center that will be a cultural hub, a center of activity for all that is happening all over the county," she said. "It will have to be accessible to the most number of people in the county."

A search committee expects to make its recommendation by fall.

Filkins and Corea hope to open the center by 2013.

"This is not about ifs," she said. "It's about when. We need to move ahead."

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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