Controversy over Silver Spring Civic Center rental rates
Meeting tonight on accessing public space
The Silver Spring Civic Center is just weeks old, but its room rental rates are already the center of a controversy, with residents and nonprofit officials complaining the cost of holding meetings in the fresh space makes it off-limits to low-budget community groups and nonprofits.
A meeting on accessing public space in Silver Spring is set to discuss this topic at 7 p.m. tonight at the civic building.
The meeting comes in the wake of complaints over a $300-per-hour price tag for not-for-profit organizations renting the great hall during weekend, as well as news that Round House Theatre gave up one of its rehearsal spaces last week in an attempt to increase public space for the community.
Karen Cooper, a Silver Spring resident, is up in arms over the prices set by the county to rent space in the new civic building. She's a citizen and a taxpayer, she said, so she should be able to use the building her tax dollars went toward. Instead, she said she feels priced out by room fees that limit the ability of ordinary citizens to use the space.
"The question is: What is the building for?" she asked. "If it's to be used for commercial events, for weddings and things like that, they didn't need to build a civic building as far as I'm concerned. Basically, I think by the amount they're charging, they're pricing the community out."
The state-of-the-art building has roughly half a dozen meeting rooms with flat-screen TVs that could comfortably seat anything from a Boy Scout troop to a citizen's association. There is also a courtyard and ballroom that can be rented out.
Rental rates range from $25/hour for a nonprofit or community group using a small conference room during the week to $400/hour for a personal party or business using the great hall on a weekend. Prices vary based on the type of person or organization booking the room, the day and time, and the size of the room. Personal parties and businesses pay slightly more per-hour than community service groups.
Darian Unger, a member of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, said the board has been pushing for lower room fees for months. He hopes the board's gripes are finally reaching the ears of county officials, he said.
"We hope they revisit the fees as soon as possible," he said. "We thought the rates for private businesses are too low, and for nonprofit, local organizations that are doing good things are too high."
Unger and Cooper said the fees are even higher than they seem, because the fee listed is for one hour. Meetings usually last longer, and require additional time for set-up and clean-up.
But county officials said their rates are based on an in-depth analysis of what comparable county buildings are charging. A board consisting of citizens, business-owners and county officials that is operated by the Community Use of Public Facilities agency voted to approve the rates, according to Liz Habermann, a financial administrator with the agency.
Susan Hoffmann, of the Silver Spring Regional Center, handles the marketing of the building to the private sector. She said the building has to be rented at the set rates for 20-hours-a-week, 50-weeks-a-year in order to recover the operating costs.
She said citizens who use the "I'm a taxpayer" argument are not looking at the whole picture. Tax dollars went toward construction costs, but rental fees are needed for operational costssecurity guards, electricity, air conditioning and building upkeep. If they don't charge for rent, the operating costs would have to be taken out of tax dollars.
Every county-operated room that can be rented charges a fee, Hoffmann added.
"I certainly am sympathetic to the argument, "Well, we don't have the money to use this room," but the Community Use of Public Facilities has been operating for 30 years, and there's never been a free room," she said.
There is a chance the agency-operated board could alter the fees, Hoffmann said. Originally, the board was set to revisit the rates after one year, but it has since pushed that timeline up to six months, she said.
Round House gives up space
As county officials field phone calls from residents upset by the room rates, Round House Theatre officials say they decided Friday to give up their plaza-level rehearsal space in an effort to increase space available to the community.
The theater was promised free space in Silver Spring and Bethesda by former Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. In the civic building, this amounts to two rehearsal spaces and several offices. In exchange for the space, Round House provides arts and entertainment services to a redeveloping Silver Spring.
"We felt like this is the best thing for the community in light of the great need that we're hearing from individuals and other nonprofits in the area," said Blake Robison, the executive director of the theater. "... I just want to see it busy, as many days out of the year as possible. My understanding is that there are dozens and dozens of groups that want to get in there."
But giving up this room doesn't necessarily mean it will be any cheaper to rent than the rest of the rooms in the civic building, county officials said. Though nothing has been decided on this space yet, it is very possible this space will be regrouped into the Community Use of Public Facility's list of rooms for rent.
"If it's paid by county money, if it was billed by taxpayer dollars, the chances are it will come under us as part of the community-use space," said Ginny Gong, director of the county's rental agency. "If that's the case, it will follow the guidelines in place. Having said that, this is quite new, and I'm not really sure how that decision will be made."
Richard Jaeggi, executive director of the youth nonprofit Ghandi Brigade, said he hopes the space will be turned over to a nonprofit, such as Silver Spring Town Center Inc., to host community programs. Teens in Silver Spring, especially, need a space to host meetings, classes and discussions.
"I think we're seeing a real opportunity in having this one room that's going to bewe hopetruly dedicated to the community at a very low-bar rate," he said.