They built a second level, added seating for 120 patrons, hung the professional lights and painted the walls black. Now the Elden Street Players may be forced to leave its 16-year home at the Industrial Strength Theater in Herndon if a sale is made to private owners, which could leave the acting troupe with no place to perform.
"D-day has arrived," said Les Zidel, one of the founding members of the Elden Street Players. "We've been warning about this problem for a number of years and planning for this and I was hoping we'd have a solution by now, but obviously we don't."
The Industrial Strength Theater is located in a rental unit in the Sunset Business Park and is owned by the Vienna-based Atlantic Realty Company. It is being rented on a month-to-month basis by the Town of Herndon, and is sub-leased on a performance basis to the Elden Street Players.
The 120-seat theater has been the home of the Elden Street Players since it was outfitted with a stage in 1989. The group sells about 7,000 tickets to five main stage shows and three children's shows over the course of a year, Zidel said. When the property itself was purchased by the Atlantic Realty Company in 2003, the Elden Street Players were made aware of the possibility that the real estate group would eventually sell the unit to a private owner.
Two weeks ago, the Town of Herndon received a call from Atlantic Realty asking for a time when they could show the unit to a prospective buyer. The Herndon Town Council called for an unscheduled closed-door meeting on Aug. 15 in response to this development.
"It's a change in management philosophy of the industrial park due from a change in ownership," said Art Anselene, director of Herndon's Parks and Recreation Department. "What you're seeing now is Atlantic Realty wanting to switch from a rental to private ownership with their property."
Calls requesting an interview with the Atlantic Realty Company were not returned.
SITTING IN A SEAT at the top level of the Industrial Strength Theater while cast members rehearsed lines and songs for the evening's performance of the musical "Blood Brothers," Zidel said that while he is concerned about the call, he always knew that a new theater would need to be found.
"This was developed as an incubator project — with the thinking that someday you have the option of growing out of it and getting a bigger building," he said. "It just so happens that our growing process has taken 17 years."
Even before the property was purchased by Atlantic Realty, the Elden Street Players have been searching for a more permanent location, according to Zidel.
"When we named the group we named it the Elden Street Players with the idea that we would someday move to downtown Herndon," he said.
Representatives from the Elden Street Players and other area art groups have worked with the town in finding a location for an art center downtown that would house both an art gallery and a theater, Zidel said.
What they found as the most reasonable location was the Hands Building on Station Street, which is now owned by the town and would carry a renovation price tag of about $1.5 million.
But faced with a Town Council that was elected on a ticket of a conservative fiscal policy and a recent struggle over the construction of a $1 million Nature Center, Zidel knows that getting the council members to agree entirely to that kind of money is unlikely.
"The Town of Herndon can't obviously go it alone and nor should they," Zidel said. "This is something that is going to serve all of western Fairfax [County] and eastern Loudoun [County]."
A rough idea would involve the total cost of construction broken down into thirds, with one third being covered by funds raised by arts groups, another from federal or state grants and the remaining third provided by the town, he added.
To work with the town to resolve this issue, the group must come to the Town Council with plans, said council member Bill Tirrell.
"This organization has seen the writing on the wall for quite some time — and they need to approach this council and say here's what we can do," Tirrell said. The renovation of the Hands Building for an arts center "is certainly an option to be considered, but again this is a fiscally conservative council, so money is tight."
While he is in favor of keeping the Elden Street Players operating in Herndon, a feasible solution will also have to be one that does not tie up large amounts of money, Tirrell added.
WHILE ONE OPTION has been the construction of an arts center, it hasn't been the only one.
Some members of the Elden Street Players, including president Jeff Boatright, feel that the current Industrial Strength Theater site is still the best and most reasonable option for the acting crew.
"It's one of those unique places, I know a lot of the actors who work with us really like coming back because it has that intimate feel to it," said Boatright.
Despite the battles over the possible construction of an arts center and other expensive capital improvement projects with the town, the Industrial Strength Theater has never been threatened with losing its funding, Boatright said.
According to 2006 property assessments done by Fairfax County, the unit that houses the Industrial Strength Theater is worth $439,920.
"There are times that I wished we had more seating when there's a real popular play that's selling out every night, but overall it's a great place to be," Boatright said. "Sometimes you get people who come back because of the play or the Elden Street Players and sometimes they come back because of the Industrial Strength Theater."
FOR THE ELDEN Street Players, a short term solution needs to be found before a long-term one is begun, Zidel and Boatright said.
Since the lease agreement is on a month-to-month basis, the Atlantic Realty Company could tell the Elden Street Players that they have to leave within 30 days if it is sold to a private owner.
But instant solutions are hard to come by.
Some initial considerations such as using area schools as a temporary home for the Elden Street Players have been ruled out as too costly, Tirrell said.
"From my perspective, I am sympathetic to the situation of the Elden Street Players, but as to what we can do, I don't have the answer," council member Charlie Waddell said. "I know that some people have raised the [acquisition] of the Hands Inc. building, but as to it being a viable alternative and something we're going to do? No."
"It's not something that could be ready within a year — at the earliest."
State Del. Tom Rust (R-86) said that while he wasn't aware of the issue with the possible sale of the Industrial Strength Theater site, there are options available for state-granted funds.
"That type of request has been granted in the past, but it's very tough, it's very competitive," Rust said.
Rust added that any money that could be made available couldn't be earmarked for the organization until July of next year at the earliest.
"I'm certainly willing to talk to them and see what they need," Rust said, "but I can't stress enough that no one has come to me about this."
Since the Elden Street Players runs a full year of productions, any interruption to the program could cause major problems for the organization, Zidel said.
"I'm concerned first that we continue with what we're doing and second that we can't think ahead so fast that we lose the idea of what we really need for a quick solution," he said.
Boatright suggested the town and the Elden Street Players work out a deal with Atlantic Realty to give them more time to find a lasting solution.
For Zidel, it's about a lot more than business and money matters.
"When I go to the council meetings and they talk about art centers and they talk about bricks and cement, we lose sight that it's not just a building," Zidel said. "It's a stage and there is a lot of artistic passion and talent that go into that."
"It's not just a building and that's something that's hard for business people to understand."