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Painting a Future in Laurel Hill

Lorton Arts Foundation receives $500,000 from Board of Supervisors.

Trying to make something beautiful out of what was once a place for those who committed ugly actions, the Lorton Arts Foundation is one step closer to achieving its dream of an artistic complex at the former Lorton prison site.

On Monday, Sept. 12, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors appropriated $500,000 from the Fiscal Year 2006 budget to the Lorton Arts Foundation to be used for the maintenance of the site and some of the buildings there, said Tina Leone, executive director of the foundation.

"The site is eligible for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places, so it's required to be maintained to a certain level," Leone said.

Preserving the historic characteristic of the buildings is a priority for the Foundation, she said, and because it will be "several years" before the organization makes any sort of profit, the Foundation has asked the county to help cover maintenance charges for some of the buildings, including what will become an artists' workshop and performing arts center.

"The county is leasing the property to us for $1 per year, but we're contributing about $20 million in improvements to the property to make this a cultural asset for the county and the entire region," Leone said.

Final negotiations on the lease are currently being worked out, she said, but will "hopefully" be completed by January, so restoration and renovations on the site can begin early next year.

"We are a revenue-generating organization," Leone said. The county is issuing its contributions through Industrial Revenue Bonds, meaning the Foundation will be paying back every dime. "We hope to pay back any grants through the operation of the center, by leasing space to restaurants, rent from artists living in the residences," Leone said.

THE RENOVATION of the former Lorton Prison site will consist of several phases, the first of which will cost about $37 million and will include working on 15 buildings in one of the quadrangles of the site.

"Nearly all the buildings will be fully built out to become studios or black box theaters, and we'll also develop our administrative and visitors center," said Leone, of the first phase. "The quad will be done within two years of the start of construction. Well over 100 artists will be working in the studios once they open."

Eventually, Leone and the board of the Lorton Arts Foundation envision a performing arts center along the lines of Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna.

"The construction of this place will be spectacular," she said. "It's going to look like a college campus. We've been working on this for so long, it's about time something started to move out there."

The $500,000 grant from the Board of Supervisors was contingent upon the Foundation raising the same amount of funding on its own, said Sharon Mason, artistic administrator for the Lorton Arts Foundation.

"We've already matched this year's funding and are working on raising matching funds for Fiscal Year 2007," she said, which, according to reports from the Board of Supervisors, would result in a grant of $1 million in additional funding.

Part of the funding will come through the Foundation's initial partnership with the newly opened South County Secondary School, a project called the Artist's Palette.

"Local artists have taken a wooden palette and painted images on them, which are currently on display at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College," said Mason. "People can bid on certain pieces in an auction, or if a donation is made, they can select a palette as a gift from the Foundation."

Most of the palettes measure 12 inches by 16 inches, but the ones that will be given to donors measure 16 inches by 25 inches, she said. All the artists who have submitted palettes are from across the region. "This is the only program we have currently running, but it's something we hope to continue in the future as well," Mason said.

When the site is completed, up to 40 units will be leased to artists who want to live and work at the complex, she said.

"There are 30 buildings currently on the site. We will have a 300 seat theater, a two-story art gallery, we expect to have a dance studio with instructions and two museums," she said. One of the museums will be dedicated to women's history, with a focus on the suffragist movement, and another to the history of prisons, including the prison that used to be there.

Receiving the funding from the Board of Supervisors shows that the county is putting its money where its mouth is," said Lorton Arts Foundation president Irma Clifton. "This is the county giving us a thumb's up and it encourages us to redouble our fundraising efforts, but we're already out there doing that," she said.

Many people who live in the Lorton area are "anxious" to see the construction begin, Clifton said. "The county is currently working on widening Ox Road, which opens up to a vista and gives a much better view of the site," she said. "As much as South County Secondary School will be an attraction for children in this area, the Lorton site will be an attraction for the whole family," she said.