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Despite Storm, Arts Center Moves Ahead

With CIP vote behind it, the proposed downtown cultural arts center charts its course while former councilman Tirrell plots his.

The prospect of spending more than $8 million on a downtown cultural arts center is enough to make Bill Tirrell contemplate running for mayor, again.

The arts center stands to be the "single most expensive" project ever undertaken by the Town of Herndon, Tirrell said. The price tag has Tirrell plotting his options.

A former five-term councilman and one-time mayoral candidate, Tirrell has been a vocal and visible staple at this year's string of budget and Capital Improvement Program (CIP) hearings. Two years ago, Tirrell lost to Mayor Richard Thoesen by 268 votes. Proving the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, Thoesen then appointed his vanquished opponent to a seat on the town's Planning Commission.

"I will consider my options," Tirrell said on Monday. "I may run for mayor. I think I would be a valuable addition to the new council in 2004."

Tirrell said he hasn't made up his mind and won't until later this fall. "A number of folks do stop and ask me what I am going to do," he said, with a laugh.

Just as he did with the town manager's then-proposed budget, Tirrell said he read the consultant's draft final report for the new arts center. "As soon as I got it," he said on Monday. "I read it cover to cover."

What he found alarmed him, he said. As a member of the Planning Commission, Tirrell, and a majority of his fellow commissioners, had already voted to cut funding in half, from $7 million to $3.5 million. Throughout the budget and CIP process, Tirrell and others from the Planning Commission, voiced displeasure that the Town Council seemed to ignore the recommendations of their commission.

After reading the draft final report, which consists of preliminary planning and architectural conceptual designs, Tirrell's initial concerns were only confirmed. "It's expensive and it appears to get more expensive as time goes on," he said, adding that it will benefit a select cross-section of the Herndon population. "I find the $8.8 million figure alarming and I think that is being generous."

Scott Wilson, the leader of the consulting team, confirmed that the project would get more expensive, "the longer the town waits." In the report's final budget estimate, a built-in cost for 3 percent inflation totalling $380,118 for 21 months is contained in the $8.5 million total. That is assuming the town put its bid out in 2005. "Nobody should be shocked that the price goes up as time goes by," Wilson said.

THE REPORT MARKS the end of a two-year relationship, at least for now, between the Town of Herndon and Boston-based architectural firm Wilson Butler Lodge. In his June 12 letter to Ellen Kaminsky, chair of the Cultural Arts Center Advisory Committee, Wilson said the process was inclusive, exhaustive and full of "a generous amount of public input … that represents broad consensus."

A frequent speaker at the town's budget hearings this spring, Ann Null provided a generous amount of her own public input. But for Null, she disagrees that the report represents anything resembling consensus. Until the issue of the day-laborer site began generating news, Null had been a relative novice in local council meetings and hearings. A novice no longer, Null says she was "awakened" by the day-laborer issue, and since has become surprised to learn about the arts center's price tag with all those "zeroes" at the end.

Given all the public sentiment voiced against the arts center, Null said the council did not need to rush to a vote. "They could have waited until July," she said. "I am very disappointed they proceeded to a vote."

As of Monday, the mayor, who is a former chairman of the Cultural Arts Center Advisory Committee and one of its staunchest supporters, had not yet read the final draft proposal. "It's just a checkpoint to see where we are, one of several such checkpoints," Thoesen said. It was the mayor who called the unusual joint June 18 meeting between the council and the Planning Commission. "We're still in the planning stages here and I thought this would be a good opportunity to look at where we are, together," Thoesen said. "This is a continuation of a journey started by [former mayor and current state delegate] Tom Rust, continued by Mayor Bruce and myself."

LIKE A LOT OF TOWN residents, Tirrell says he would like to see "considerable private money" raised to help fund the downtown center. Kaminsky has heard the increasingly loud demand for private money to fund the center. Given the economic realities of the day, "private investment isn't out there to be had."

Kaminsky said that, while desirable, the argument by those who have "pointed fingers about private funding" is not realistic. "Corporations are just not as free with their money as they were in the 1990s. I don't think there is one single person who will come up with $6 or $7 million."

Kaminsky said that the center's recently formed foundation will have to be creative in its fund-raising attempts. "I do believe there is some funding out there," she said.

According to Wilson Butler Lodge's report, a fund-raising feasibility study is ongoing. "This task will fully evaluate opportunities to obtain capital and operating support for the project."

In addition, Kaminsky, who succeeded Thoesen as chair of the committee and is the mayor's former campaign chairman, said the town recognizes that the center needs to be built by the town "because it is an investment in the town."

Councilman Dennis Husch, one of only two council members to vote against the budget and the CIP, thinks the proposed investment in the town by its taxpayers is too steep. Like many residents who spoke during the public hearings, Husch says the town deserves a referendum before allocating such large sums of money for capital projects. Currently the CIP has $7 million earmarked towards construction of the arts center for FY 2008. While some on the council stressed that the CIP is nothing more than a planning document, Husch insists that it has far more importance than some of his colleagues would like to say it does. "It establishes some expectations," Husch said before casting his dissenting vote. "Because it is in this document, the expectation is that it will be funded."

Citing numbers provided by the town manager, Husch warned his colleagues and the audience that Herndon residents would face a 63 percent, or a 6 cents per $100 of assessed value, increase in their property tax rates by the year 2009 if all of the CIP projects were funded. "There is little or no discussion on how we are going to pay for this," Husch said at the last week's public hearing. "This is the difference between Christmas and your dad talking."

KAMINSKY DISPUTED the argument that the center, paid for by the entire taxpaying community, will only serve a core group of "artsy" users. "I don't golf and I don't use the ball fields, but I still support the town's funding of these projects," Kaminsky said. "Together, all of these functions help weave together the fabric of a community. Some in our community don't see the bigger picture."

Actually, it was, Kaminsky said, the consultants who "prompted" the arts committee to understand the importance of a community room. "They stretched us to look at that room at the expense of a larger theater," the chairman said. "Including that room would help engender the most support of the community at large and make the community stakeholders in the project."

The room, and not the theater, is expected to bring in the most revenue for the project. "It's our cash cow," Kaminsky said, adding that local organizations, civic groups, corporations and individuals would be welcome to rent out the room for everything from weddings to fund-raisers.

Still reeling from the emotional budget process, Thoesen says he and the council need to do a better job of communicating with the public. Thoesen insisted, however, that it has always been a hallmark of the town council to "consistently try and add amenities, like the cultural arts center, that make Herndon a special place to live."