Curtain closing on Old Blair Auditorium project
County jeopardizes renovation by deciding not to fund facility
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett did not fund the renovation of the Old Blair Auditorium in his capital budget released Friday, putting state funds allotted for the long-vacant Silver Spring facility in jeopardy and leaving a community in need of arts space still wanting.
In 2005, a $600,000 state bond bill was awarded to Old Blair Auditorium Project Inc., a nonprofit residents group dedicated to renovating the facility, which has been closed since the 1999 relocation of Montgomery Blair High School. However, the bond is contingent on the county matching the $600,000 in its Capital Improvements Program for 2011-2016.
Leggett left out funds for the Old Blair Auditorium in his recommended CIP submitted Friday. Now, unless there is an extension, the bond bill will expire at the end of this year, forcing rehabilitation efforts of the auditorium to start from scratch.
"The county government hasn't stepped up to take ownership of the project," said Stuart Moore, president of Old Blair Auditorium Inc. "... It's a county resource, this space that's sitting there that was once used for something beneficial now is just rotting and the county is letting it continue to rot."
In May 2008, Calverton-based architects Grimm and Parker met with residents, county officials and Montgomery County Public Schools officials to plan the auditorium's renovation in the event that further funding would be provided. The facility would be renovated into a 750- to 800-seat, two-floor auditorium with four classrooms in the rear of the facility and cost up to $8 million depending on the design. The auditorium is located on the campus of Silver Spring International Middle and Sligo Creek Elementary schools.
The space would be available to students of those schools, as well as county arts and theater groups who could rent out the space.
"It would have been so flexible in terms of putting on different scale and size things," said Greg Lewis, executive director of the performance group Washington Revels, which has administrative offices on Dale Drive near the Old Blair Auditorium. Washington Revels, usually featuring 50 to 100 performers in each of its productions, travels across the region looking for performance venues and often holds smaller rehearsals in their offices or outside due to a lack of available space.
The design meetings held last year were part of a $25,000 feasibility study spearheaded by Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring.
"It's time for the county to step up for responsibility of this asset," said Ervin, who wondered why funding for the auditorium wasn't included at least in the back end of the 2011-2016 CIP. "It's been left empty for a decade now, at a time where we need extra classroom space and afterschool space."
Leggett's CIP proposal called for $3.9 million in capital construction, $110 million more than what was approved last year. The CIP budget relies largely on borrowed money, and low interest rates and low construction costs due to the economic recession made this a good time to take on construction projects, Leggett said last week. The county's operating budget is facing a $600 million deficit.
"We had a lot more requests than money to give out," Leggett spokesman Patrick K. Lacefield said of the CIP.
The bond bill was extended in the 2008 General Assembly, thanks to support from Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Dist. 20) of Takoma Park and Dels. Sheila Hixson, Tom Hucker and Heather Mizeur, all Democrats from Dist. 20 in Silver Spring. Facing the loss of $600,000 dedicated to the auditorium's renovation, Old Blair Auditorium Inc. and state legislators will push for an extension again this year, Raskin said, but "we have limited leverage in the absence of a local effort." The state is facing a $2 billion shortfall.
If the state funding is lost the building will continue to deteriorate, leaving middle and elementary school students adjoined to the auditorium without space and a potentially vibrant performance space without an opening curtain.
"It could be rented out virtually every day," said David Ottalini, an Old Blair Auditorium Inc. board member. "How much money have we lost by not having space available for rent?"