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Votes

Council Affirms Support for Arts Center

Former member of advisory committee speaks out against recommendations; Hutchinson and Husch vote against resolution.

Ellen Kaminsky wasn’t going to let the criticism of a former colleague upset her night.

Kaminsky, chairman of the Herndon Cultural Arts Center Advisory Committee, knew Tuesday was an important milestone for supporters of a downtown arts center. For two years of studies, site selection debates and town hall meetings, it had come down to this. Kaminsky has helped steward the long-held dream, shared by many Herndon residents and a majority of council members, of bringing an arts center into the heart of downtown Herndon. Tuesday night, Kaminsky and her fellow arts center supporters took one step closer when the Town Council voted 5 to 2 to accept the committee’s final report and, perhaps more importantly, to endorse its findings.

"The past two years have been a very long, but satisfying journey," Kaminsky said, smiling. "This represents a significant move towards the vision of what downtown Herndon can be."

Kaminsky, one of the town’s most visible and vocal arts backers, had reason to beam after Tuesday’s vote. "Endorsing — that was the key," she said, nearly a week after the July 8 public hearing. "If they didn’t endorse it, how would we sell that to someone else?"

However, Kaminsky’s exuberance was tempered, if only slightly, by a former committee member who took to the podium to blast the committee’s recommendations as ill conceived and poorly executed.

UNTIL MAY OF 2002, Richard Schneider was a member of the advisory committee. Schneider stepped down after it was clear that, due to costs, the committee would have to scale back their original plans for the proposed center, Kaminsky said. Like most of her fellow committee members, Kaminsky’s vision for a downtown cultural arts center has evolved over the years, but she said Schneider wasn’t willing to downsize his vision of a downtown center. Last Tuesday, Schneider took his complaints public, decrying the committee’s final report and its plans for an estimated $8 million plus, 275-seat theater as nothing more than a "money pit." "I continue to dream of a quality theater in Herndon," Schneider said. "But, nobody wants this theater."

Schneider said the committee settled on a design that was somehow, "both too big and too small." The 275-seat capacity will be too big for small town productions and too small to attract outside traveling shows, he said, adding that it was too similar in scope and size to the Reston Community Center’s playhouse, which, he said, has struggled to attract outside touring groups. "Make the theater smaller or bigger," he said. "Right now the theater is no good for anything."

Councilman Connie Hutchinson, one of two of the council’s dissenting votes; and a friend and colleague of Kaminsky, said she found Schneider’s comments very compelling. "My greatest fear is that it won’t be fully utilized," Hutchinson said, adding that she would be more inclined to support plans that were, "much smaller in scale and price." "I’m not sure that the resident companies will be a big enough draw for a facility of that size."

Eileen Curtis, president of the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce, does not share Hutchinson and Schneider’s worries about a lack of use. If the town builds a downtown cultural arts center, Curtis said, the audience will come. "Herndon is one of the finest arts towns in America," Curtis said. "It is just waiting for a home."

KAMINSKY DISPUTED Schneider’s claim that traveling groups would not want to perform at the Herndon theater because of its size. "It will certainly attract small groups and it could accommodate a chamber orchestra among other things," the chairman said.

In addition, Kaminsky challenged Hutchinson’s desire for a smaller facility. The chairman said her committee, with the help of its hired consultants, had determined that anything smaller than the "moderately sized" 29,021-square-foot building set forth in the final report would be "inadequate, if further reduced."

Schneider, who said he was a strong supporter of the arts, implored the council not to accept or endorse the work of the committee with which he once sat. "Either do it right, or don’t do it all," he said. "The delay will be well worth it."

Stung by the criticism of a former colleague, Kaminsky admitted she was surprised at Schneider’s comments. Kaminsky said she took offense to Schneider’s insinuation that the committee had not done its homework. "We spent four years between two councils talking about this," she said, adding that Schneider was always an advocate of a larger theater. "This plan is going to satisfy the most users and it will give us our best return on investment."

Kaminsky said she was disappointed in Schneider’s presentation because, she said, it didn’t accurately reflect what had been discussed and debated over the course of the last two years.

"The final report represents a broad consensus and reflects a deliberately methodical evaluation of an extensive range of physical and operational possibilities meticulously researched over the past two years," Kaminsky wrote in a June 25 memorandum to the mayor and Town Council. "We are confident the body of work presented within this report will lead to a physical structure that not only functions exceptionally well in our downtown, but one that contributes to the long-term growth, and continued evolution, of our hometown."

Kaminsky added that she would not be surprised to see opponents of the arts center latch on to Schneider’s comments. "Whenever there is fuel for the fire, a clever advocate will use some new artillery," she said.

OTHER ARTS CENTER supporters, like Mayor Richard Thoesen, who chaired the first advisory committee, praised the report’s findings as "another positive step forward" towards a shared town vision dating back to 1989. "Put away those crayons, Ellen," the mayor joked, in reference to Kaminsky calling the preliminary plans akin to a crayon sketch. "Start bringing out the No. 2 pencils."

Kaminsky seems ready to move to the next phase in the drive to bring an arts center to the downtown. "We are ready to take the next step, but the foundation needs your help," she said, before Tuesday’s vote. "The Town Council must be firmly behind the arts center, before we can expect outside funding. The time is now. Make decisions today for a vibrant downtown tomorrow."

Fresh off a vacation in the northeast, committee member Richard Downer with travel brochures in hand, said he returned to Herndon refreshed from visiting towns like Scranton, Pa., and Woodstock, N.Y., that have "used arts to attract people to a community."

"The final keystone that could really make the downtown work," Downer said. "There are ways to pay for it, we all know it’s affordable."

Representatives from the chamber echoed Downer’s optimism that a downtown arts center will benefit the entire community, especially a revitalized town core. Jim Deuel, the chairman of the chamber, wholeheartedly endorsed the final report. "I am enthralled by how well this will fit into our community," he said. "It will draw people to our downtown. This is also going to draw revenue to the businesses already here."

Curtis said the arts center would be the "crown jewel" of the town’s long-term downtown redevelopment plan and the "soul of the community."

In voicing her clear support for the project, Vice Mayor Carol Bruce said the downtown facility would be an "exciting" step for Herndon. "Even if you don’t give a hay about arts, this building will be good for the town," she said.

Citing the potential economic windfall of $2 million per year, Councilman John DeNoyer threw his unqualified support behind the resolution. "The arts center is an essential element of the downtown."

HUTCHINSON SAID THAT in theory she is supportive of bringing an arts center to downtown, but she is not sure the plan endorsed last week is the way for the town to go. Hutchinson, who runs the town’s Visitor’s Center, said she has some "trepidation" about the existing plan and that she is "not comfortable" with the costs or the scope of the project. "It’s the endorsing I am a bit nervous about," she said. "At this early point in the project for us to endorse this report gives it some undue restrictions.

"It does design and dictate monies that will be spent."

Dennis Husch sided with Hutchinson. While he, too, supports the "concept," he insisted that the existing plan was too constricting, though he did take time to praise the work of the committee and the consultants. "I certainly don’t want to limit where we can go in the future."

With $250,000 already dedicated to preliminary engineering in this year’s budget, Councilman Harlon Reece said he felt comfortable endorsing the final report as a guide for future design. "Whether we endorse it or not, it’s going to be used."