An otherwise harmonious Board of Public Works meeting hit a dissonant note Wednesday when Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot objected to a $553,264 purchase of 32 Steinway-designed pianos for a performing arts center scheduled to open next year at Bowie State University.
Franchot was outvoted by his fellow board members, Gov. Martin O'Malley and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, but not before sounding an alarm that taxpayers were being asked to pay for top-of-the-line pianos at a time of budget austerity.
"I love Bowie State University and appreciate the prestige of a Steinway, but it's the Rolls-Royce [of pianos] and we're in a tough economic time," he said. "I think any taxpayer would arch an eyebrow at this purchase."
Franchot, a Democrat elected in 2006 as a liberal outsider, has more recently been striking a theme of fiscal conservatism. He is regarded as a possible candidate for governor in 2014.
The purchase at issue consists of four Steinway grand pianos and 28 that are made by other manufacturers based on Steinway designs and sold through a Steinway dealer in Rockville. But Franchot didn't see a sufficient distinction.
"Couldn't we have bought a couple of Steinways, and the rest could have been the Chevrolets rather than the Rolls-Royces?" the comptroller said.
The discussion of Steinways came near the end of an otherwise conflict-free meeting at which the board approved many contracts worth millions of dollars with little discussion.
The piano purchase would help equip Bowie State's $79 million Fine and Performing Arts Center scheduled to open early next year. The 123,000-square-foot building will include a 400-seat main theater, a 200-seat recital hall, an art gallery, artists' studios, classrooms, laboratories and offices.
Marymal Holmes, a professor of music at Bowie State, said the purchase would help recruitment of top-notch students and faculty at the Prince George's County university. She said the deal would let Bowie claim the distinction of being the second historically black college in the United States to have an "all-Steinway" music school.
"This will be a tremendous uplift for our institution as well as our students," she said. Holmes, who told the board, "I know pianos," said there is no match for the tone or touch of a Steinway.
Franchot, however, wondered whether 100 people blindfolded in the concert hall could really tell the difference. When Holmes assured him they could, the comptroller remained unconvinced. He said Bowie State should have tried to raise the money to go all-Steinway through private contributions.
The comptroller's office pointed to the successful efforts of other state-supported schools, including George Mason University in Virginia and Columbus State University in Georgia, to buy Steinways largely through donations and drawing on private funding sources.
Bowie State officials said the four full-fledged Steinways would be used in the performance hall, while five Steinway "Boston" models would be used by faculty and 23 Steinway "Essex" pianos by students while practicing. They said that by making the bulk purchase, they received discounts on the price of each piano.
O'Malley, himself a musician, moved for approval. His fellow Democrat Kopp, who described herself as an "appreciator," fell in tune with the governor.
"When you look at what they got . . . it was at a 24 to 25 percent discount," Kopp said. "I thought, all things considered, it was a very good purchase. It symbolizes the importance of the Bowie fine arts program," she said.