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Votes

'Yes' for Arts Center

With little stated opposition, the town finalizes purchase of property at 750 Center St.

In a 6 to 1 vote, the Herndon Town Council approved the $1.5 million purchase of the Hands Inc. property clearing the way for a proposed downtown cultural arts center at its Nov. 26 public hearing.

Vice Mayor Carol Bruce said she, and many others in attendance, had dreamed about this day for years. Bruce said she was excited to be a part of Tuesday's vote which she called the "first concrete steps in making [the arts center] a reality."

Councilman Harlon Reece, a longtime supporter of the arts, called the purchase bold. "I strongly support this motion and I think it will be the right thing to do for the future of our town."

Town Attorney Richard Kaufman said, under the terms of the agreement, the town would buy the 1-acre property on the corner of Center and Vine streets for $1.5 million plus a $4,000 appraisal fee. Also as part of the contract, the town would, for a nominal fee of $1 per year, rent the property and all of the land back to the owner for two years.

<b>COUNCILWOMAN CONNIE HUTCHINSON</b> accounted for the lone vote against the purchase. "I do support the cultural arts project," said Hutchinson. "However, as much as I would like to, I am not going to support spending this much money."

Hutchinson said she feared that the cost, which she said, was 50 percent higher than the town's appraised value, would dissuade future developers at the very time when the council and the town are encouraging new commercial and residential downtown development and investment. "I fear we are raising the bar to an unrealistic level thereby discouraging further development."

Councilman Dennis Husch disagreed with Hutchinson's contention that the purchase would hurt downtown development. Husch said one of the reasons he decided to support the measure was that he thinks it will have a positive impact on the future of the business district. "This is important to the future of downtown Herndon," he said. "And this purchase is the next event to control a strategy of urbanization that was started decades ago."

Originally the town designated $1.2 million towards the purchase of land for the center, but Mayor Richard Thoesen, who headed the negotiations, was only able to bring the owner, Joseph F. Wyzkoski Jr., down to $1.5 million.

To make up the budget short fall, the council approved, in another 6 to 1 vote, a resolution authorizing moving $300,000 out of the Downtown Improvement Capital Project Account to the Cultural Arts Center Capital Project.

Recognizing the high price of the property, Councilman Michael O'Reilly credited Wyzkoski for his willingness to negotiate. Wyzkoski's own appraiser, O'Reilly said, valued the property at $2.2 million. "It was a very hard fought negotiation," the councilman said Tuesday. "It nearly came undone several times and the council was on pins and needles hoping we would get it."

For his part, the mayor acknowledged that neither side got exactly what they wanted, but he characterized the negotiations as amicable and emotional. "I wish I could have brought the community a lower price," said Thoesen, who is a former chairman of the Cultural Arts Center Advisory Committee. "But on the other hand, I know that Joe Wyzkoski had to go back to his family and tell them that he wished he could have gotten a higher price."

<b>BEFORE THE VOTE</b>, five Herndon residents addressed the council at Tuesday's public hearing, and all five spoke in support of the planned cultural arts center. Les Zidel, an advisory committee member, urged the council to support the purchase calling the Hands Inc. property the best possible site for the long-awaited arts center that would unify the downtown triangle. "It will best enhance current and future mixed-use development planned," Zidel said. "It also has the best access to shared parking without diminishing the available parking spaces we currently have."

Former Town Councilman Richard Downer, another committee member, also urged a "yes" vote. He characterized the proposed center as a "bold step" and he implored the council to "keep moving us forward."

Downer, also challenged the council to build a structure that is not only useful, but visionary, as well. It should, he said, be the town's "crown jewel."

"You have the opportunity and the obligation to connect it to the Town Green," he said. "The architectural design must far exceed the design of the other two civic buildings."

After the hearing, Hutchinson said, while not shocked at the outcome, she was surprised that she was the only council member to vote against the purchase. "Behind closed doors, there had been some heated discussion amongst council about the price," she said. "So yes, I guess I was surprised that I was the only stated opposition. What can I say? The project obviously has a lot of support."

If Hutchinson has her say, future negotiations between the city and private owners will be conducted differently and more discreetly. When the advisory committee selected the Hands Inc. site as the preferred site earlier this year, it diminished the town's bargaining ability, Hutchinson said. "We really put ourselves in a bind by being so open about our site preference," the councilwoman said. "I think we showed our hand and played right into the hands of property owners. Hopefully, we have learned from that for future purchases."