Stung by criticism he saw as unfair, Mayor Richard Thoesen defended on Monday the proposed downtown cultural arts center and its nearly $8 million price tag.
Bill Tirrell, a former mayoral candidate and current planning commissioner, has questioned the town's investment in a project that he labeled as the "single most expensive" ever in the history of Herndon.
Thoesen defended his and the majority of the council's support of a project that dates back nearly two decades. "The council is not being aloof. The council is not being strident," said the mayor, who calls the center a "beacon of hope." "The council is only saying, 'let's continue with the program.' We're not saying, 'we are going to spend $8 million or even $7 million."
Thoesen said that the last two years of study has been extremely helpful and a logical completion of the "latest step" in a process, but he insisted that the information gathered so far is "based on sketches, trend analysis and history, but nothing real specific like plans and specifications."
AS A RESULT, Thoesen believes the cost estimates could "vary as much as 30 or 40 percent. It could go up 30 percent or down 30 percent."
For Thoesen, handling the critics is nothing new. During his first administration in the 1980s, Thoesen said he and the council were trying to build the downtown that exists today. "We went through a very similar angst, the community was saying, 'Why are we doing this?" Why are we spending this money?" asked Thoesen. "I had a very hard time, even with those people who were very close to me saying, 'Rick, what the hell are you doing this for?'"
Now Thoesen is back to help complete the long-envisioned downtown triangle. Thoesen said his first experience was a good lesson during his current term as mayor. "And as it turns out, one of the things people like about Herndon is our downtown."
Thoesen said that one of his chief motivations for being mayor again was that he thought he had the appropriate background and the experience to help our downtown efforts including the cultural arts center. "That was one of my big motivations," he said.
Thoesen will help preside over a public hearing that will present preliminary planning and architectural concept plans for a proposed downtown cultural arts center on July 7. At the 7:30 p.m. public hearing in the council chambers, the Town Council will also consider the adoption of a resolution accepting the report as a guide for the architectural design and institutional development of the center. The estimated budget to construct the cultural arts center is approximately $8 million, according to the report, with more than $200,000 in projected revenue shortfalls during the first five years of operation. After the third year of operation, the town would transfer operation of the facility to the arts foundation. The meeting will mark the end of a "long and successful journey," said Ellen Kaminsky, the chair of the cultural arts center advisory committee.
THOESEN ARGUED that it is too early to start looking at a set bottom line. "If we were still looking at a budget that we thought wasn't looking sustainable, we could then go into a cost cutting mode," the mayor said. "I think some folks seem to think we should be cost cutting right now — that is really not akin to the process. In other words, we define form and function, we get these things settled and then we do the basis of design, then we do the value analysis."
At this point, if the mayor or the council thought the town was in an "alarming" situation, "then we could start doing some cost cutting, but cost cutting is the very last thing that you do in a programs approach." the mayor said, adding that his management style tended to be more strategic rather than "detail focused."
"Don't get bogged down in the numbers," he said. "Let's get out of the weeds and get into the vision."
Scott Wilson, the lead consultant, agreed. "It is premature to make cuts at this time," he said. "You do that when your backs are against the wall."
At a recent joint meeting between the Town Council and the Planning Commission, Wilson told the audience that the building "design will change quite a bit, but it will only get better," he said. "The building will be pretty darn close to that size. I think it's probably brick, but I don't have a crystal ball."