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Fighting for the Arts

Cultural Arts Center supporters make their voices heard at first public hearing on proposed budget.

Facing budget cuts and a sluggish economy, supporters of a cultural arts center came out swinging in defense of their dream of bringing a cultural arts center to downtown Herndon at last week's initial town council public hearing.

In its April 7 public hearing, the town’s Planning Commission recommended, in a 4 to 3 vote, that the Town Council slash funding for the proposed Herndon Cultural Arts Center in half, from $7 million to $3.5 million. The commission’s Capital Improvements Plan also cut $500,000 from the center’s proposed $1 million design budget for fiscal year 2004.

On April 24, when the Town Council held its first public hearing on the town manager’s proposed $35.4 million budget, no council action was taken, but supporters of a downtown Herndon arts center were organized and ready.

With facts, figures and even a few placards, arts supporters came en mass to help fill a standing room only crowd in the council chambers. “This center will be an economic engine to fuel the revitalization of downtown,” said Ellen Kaminsky, chairman of the Herndon Cultural Arts Advisory Committee. “This is not just a building.”

FIRST IN A LONG LINE of pro-arts speakers, Kaminsky, who helped spearhead the organized lobbying effort, said the center would bring in $2 million a year and would help make Herndon a logical destination for the expected three million visitors a year that are expected at the Smithsonian’s new Dulles Air & Space Museum near Dulles Airport.

Kaminsky pleaded with the council to re-instate the $500,000 into the center’s design budget. The commission’s recommendations, if enacted, would increase the burden on the town’s taxpayers, she said. “Do not delay,” she said.

Not everyone in the audience was as enthusiastic as Kaminsky. Former councilman and current planning commissioner Bill Tirrell, said he continued to support the idea of a cultural arts center, but he agreed with the Planning Commission’s recommendation. Because of the economic realities spelled out in the proposed town budget, Tirrell advocated delaying full funding closer to actual construction. “To everything, there is a season,” Tirrell, a former mayoral candidate, said. “And the season for the cultural arts center is not yet here.”

LONGTIME HERNDON resident Les Zidel, a member of the arts advisory committee, said there were other considerations, besides financial, that should convince the Town Council to reinstate the full design budget. Besides being a financial engine, a downtown center would provide a cultural stimulus, as well.

“The difference between a suburb and a town lies in the public realm,” said Zidel, a former planning commission member who played a key role in the make-up of Herndon’s downtown renaissance with its town green, library and the municipal center. “It is my belief that this center will provide a year-round gathering place for the town. We will become one audience and one community.”

The president of the Council for the Arts of Herndon, Stacey Sinclair, agreed. “Arts has a profound impact on people of all ages. It improves the quality of life for everyone,” Sinclair said. “The center can be a unifying force for everyone, not just art lovers, in the community.”

With the town and its residents struggling to come to address the issue of day laborers, many pro-arts center speakers, like Sinclair, said the center could be a beacon of hope and a “unifying force” in an increasingly multi-cultural community.

Tom Hatfield, a Herndon resident and executive director of the National Art Education Association, said the construction of a downtown arts center would make for a more complete community. “An arts center would create a better Herndon and a better citizenry,” he said. “Why? Because it will connect citizens with genius, multiple cultures and history.”

Richard Downer, former councilman and current committee member, agreed with both arguments. Downer praised the “citizen driven effort” to bring an arts center to the heart of downtown Herndon. Calling the arts center the downtown’s “final public building,” he urged the council to reinstate the funding so as not to hamper “the 15-year quest to see a strong and vibrant downtown Herndon.”

Besides being a “source of pride for the town,” the arts center would, Downer said, be the “economic engine that we have been looking for to support our local businesses and a big boon for restaurants.”

OTHER ARTS SUPPORTERS, like Melody Fetske, another committee member, insisted that the Planning Commission’s suggestions, if approved, could be devastating to the future of a center. “Don’t lose focus, now,” Fetske told the council. “Don’t stop the train by taking away its fuel.

“After four years of meetings, evaluations, disappointments and negotiations, we have finally arrived at something that just feels right. It’s not a Taj Majal,” Fetske said. “We cannot afford any more lost opportunities or lost momentum. Frankly, I don’t want to spend another six years without a building to show for our work.”

But support for the center also came from another, non-arts related, group. While most came to voice their opposition to a proposed 2.5 percent meals tax, most hotel and restaurant representatives took time out to also support the arts center. They heaped praise on the potential economic benefits from a downtown center calling it a “revenue generator.” Paul Sharp, director of sales for the Dulles Marriott, broke it down simply. “Arts Center? Good. Meals tax? Bad,” he said. “We need to have a destination location.”

Jim Deuel, president of the Herndon Dulles Chamber, said the addition of a downtown center represented a “great vision for the future.”

Deuel acknowledged that reinstating the $500,000 into the budget would affect other planed projects. The chamber president argued that unlike other big-ticket items, the arts center promises “financial return” in the future.

Herndon resident John Davis seemed to question the sincerity of the business owners' expressed support for the arts center. Davis said it “might be a noble cause,” but he said the center’s supporters should find private donors to help fund the project. “Why aren’t the business owners supporting it financially?” Davis asked, rhetorically. “For Herndon property owners to support this thing is ridiculous.”

Kaminsky said she was proud of the level and degree of support that the arts center received during the public hearing, but she knows that the process is a long way from a final decision from the council. “Hopefully we made our case that the arts center can be an economic engine that will drive this town’s economy,” she said. “And hopefully, we showed that it is something that will make this community a better place to live.”