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Editorial: A bit much?

Yet again, plans to build a Center for The Arts on what is expected to be a county owned property in Abingdon were presented at a public gathering, and the result seems to have been an odd mix of curiosity and caution.

Presented by the center's leadership to the Abingdon Community Council earlier in the week, the vision for the performing arts facility is certainly impressive.

Proposed to cost in the $60 million range, it is expected to include large and small performance venues and related show spaces. The center is supposed to be paid for by a mix of private donations and government grants and/or appropriations. If the county were to end up paying even half the cost of the center, that would be the equivalent of building a new elementary school, and there are several in the county currently in need of replacement.

Asked by the area's county councilman, Joe Woods, why the government needs to be involved in building an arts center, the facility's proponents made the good point that an arts center is as appropriate for government funding as a parks and recreation facility. Indeed it is.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether a demand comparable to the demand for soccer fields and ball diamonds exists in Harford County for a venue of a few thousand seats capable of hosting national touring companies and being home to local theater groups.

Clearly, Harford County has a thriving performing arts community that boasts Tidewater Players, Phoenix Festival Theater, the Susquehanna Symphony Orchestra, the Bel Air Community Band and other fine organizations.

These operations, however, already have home venues, makeshift though some of them may be. Furthermore, national and international acts make their way regularly to the stages at Harford Community College.

County Executive David Craig, who has long been supportive of the Center for The Arts effort, recently said he would consider using the existing Havre de Grace High School auditorium for a county performing arts center once a new high school is built. (Craig has also said they county won't fund any other building projects on his watch until the high school replacement is funded.) Should Craig's statements be taken to mean that such an elaborate and expensive proposal for a Center for The Arts might not be necessary?

If Harford County were a community of 250,000 people functioning as an isolated population center, such a center would be well-justified. As it is, however, even as some acts make their way to Harford County from the far corners of the earth, it's worth noting that the world class venues ofWashington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and even New York are within reasonable driving distance for those hungry for a show.

Possibly, the parks and recreation model is one that might be a better place to start. Might Harford County be better served by a series of smaller arts venues built as parks and recreation facilities? Maybe, or maybe not, but it's certainly a question worth pondering before a lot of money gets allocated for something that could well end up being turned into a large parks and recreation facility anyway if it doesn't live up to its billing.

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