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Study launched to gauge support to build or renovate performing arts centers in Annapolis

For years, one group of arts lovers has dreamed of building a "world-class" performance hall in Annapolis.

And for just as long, a second group has wanted to renovate and expand the performing arts center the city already has.

The future of those dreams may depend on the findings of a feasibility study that the Maryland Stadium Authority is launching this summer.

Seeking the best way to support a thriving arts community in Annapolis, state officials have asked Crossroads Consulting Services LLC of Tampa, Fla., to look at options for accommodating local performing groups and their patrons. Crossroads' task is to analyze whether the region can support a new performing arts center; whether it makes economic sense to renovate the existing venue, Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts; and whether the market could sustain both.

Annapolis Mayor Joshua Cohen requested the study in December. In a letter to the stadium authority's executive director, Michael Frenz, Cohen alluded to the different visions that have been aired over the years.

"While it is clear to me that Annapolis supports one of the finest performing arts communities in the state and the region," Cohen wrote, "I am requesting your assistance to determine the feasibility and sustainability of a new or expanded performing arts hall based on an analysis of the demographics of the city and its surrounding region."

The study will cost $45,000. The city of Annapolis and the state of Maryland will each pay half. Final recommendations are expected by early 2013.

The two groups have begun raising funds to build or renovate arts facilities within a mile of each other, raising questions about whether both projects can be sustained.

State officials say the study is not intended to assess the merits of any specific location or proposal for a new performing venue, just the general idea of a new project. They also want the consultants to analyze a $15 million proposal to renovate Maryland Hall and how that project would be affected by any new facility.

Gary McGuigan, the stadium authority project executive overseeing the study, said the idea is not to pit Maryland Hall against an all-new venue but to complete an objective study of what the market is and what it can support.

"Part of it is to see if there is a market for a new performing arts venue in that area and what would that mean to Maryland Hall," he said. "If not, is Maryland Hall being used correctly and how can it be improved? The idea is to test the market and see what makes sense."

Maryland Hall is a nonprofit facility that opened in 1979 within the shell of the former Annapolis High School at 801 Chase St. It's home to the Annapolis Chorale, Annapolis Opera, Annapolis Symphony and Ballet Theatre of Maryland, as well as numerous smaller arts groups and individual artists.

The 1932 building has an auditorium that seats 879 and a gymnasium space used for smaller performances, rehearsals and parties. It also has classrooms, artists' studios, offices and galleries. In partnership with the Anne Arundel County Board of Education, Maryland Hall provides education for students enrolled in the performing arts magnet program at Bates Middle School next door.

The Maryland Hall property is owned by the county's school board, and the facility is operated by an independent board of directors. According to president and CEO Linnell Bowen, Maryland Hall was used for 227 public events in 2011, and 4,000 people took classes in 842 sessions with 56 instructors. Galleries presented 42 free exhibits featuring 400 artists.

Last year, the board hired Baltimore design firm Ziger/Snead Inc. to show how the property could be upgraded. Plans include renovating the auditorium in a way that would reduce capacity to about 700 people and improve seating, acoustics and sightlines; add a 17-foot fly loft and possibly an orchestra pit; and make the building more accessible to the disabled. Architects also designed two wings, on opposite sides of the auditorium, to provide a new entrance, dressing rooms, a freight elevator, props room and other spaces. The group is in the "quiet phase" of a $15 million fund drive and has raised $2.5 million, Bowen said.

The second major arts project discussed in recent years is the Maryland Theatre for the Performing Arts, planned for an acre along Taylor Avenue near West Street within the Park Place development, next to the Westin Annapolis hotel.

According to Veronica Tovey, president of the nonprofit group seeking to build the project, her group has an agreement to acquire the Taylor Avenue property from the developer of Park Place. Tovey said the project would be carried out in two phases, with a "transitional theater" first, then a permanent theater to replace it.

Initially, she said, plans call for construction of a $5 million, 900- to 1,000-seat theater made of steel and fabric, which could open by early 2015. When sufficient funds are raised, in about five to seven years, she estimates, the transitional theater would be replaced by a permanent hall seating 1,200 to 1,500 and costing $55 million to $65 million. Severna Park resident Gary Martinez, of Martinez and Johnson Architecture of Washington, is the lead designer of both projects.

Tovey said she envisions a project comparable to Strathmore in Montgomery County, one that is run by a nonprofit group and would be "self-sustaining" in terms of its operating funds. She said the theater would be capable of accommodating Broadway-style theater productions as well as local arts groups. In 2010, her group sought state funds to help pay for the permanent project, $35 million over three years. It later reduced its request to $250,000 in seed money. So far, no state funds have been approved. Tovey said the group is in the early stage of raising private funds and has about $20,000 so far.

Another idea that has surfaced is building a performing arts venue on the grounds of Maryland Hall, between the former high school and Bates Middle School. Longtime Annapolis architect Charles Lamb has developed plans showing how a new structure connected to the existing buildings could help create a "campus for the arts."

Besides these projects are many other facilities and proposed facilities within a 90-minute drive of Annapolis, from a large new hall proposed for Washington to a theater complex that Hugh Hardy is designing for Harford County.

Advocates of the Maryland Hall renovation plan say the group's ability to raise $15 million for improvements has been hampered somewhat by concerns about whether another major project will come along nearby.

Bowen said she supports the study as a way to help public officials and others make informed decisions about how to invest in the arts, given limited funds and competing regional venues.

"I think the question is sustainability," she said. "Can this community afford a brand new performance hall, and would it be patronized? We can want it. But can the community afford it and support it, and where is the money coming from? That's the issue. It has to be sustainable."

Tovey said she believes there is a need for both a renovated Maryland Hall and a new theater. She said a new hall can have a larger stage and more seating because the designer doesn't have the constraints of working with a historic building, as Maryland Hall has been designated.

"I feel very strongly that we're the state capital and we should have a very good performing arts space," Tovey said. "We're growing. We all need to work together. One completes the other, truthfully. I know we can support it. I know we need it."

Russell Stevenson, an attorney and member of the symphony's board, said he hopes the study will point the way to development of a broad-based "community for the arts" in the area.

"The history of performing arts centers in this country is dotted with white elephants that turned out not to be financially supported, and we don't want that," he said. This study "will help us figure out what kind of long term plans we want to make. ... We need a shared vision that the entire community can support so we don't end up with competing visions."

ed.gunts@baltsun.com

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