During a recent community presentation on the proposed Center for the Arts complex in Abingdon, the project's chief advocate and the area's county councilman got into a back and forth about the need for such a grandiose facility.
To her credit, Center for the Arts' Sallee Filkins gave as good as she took from Councilman Joe Woods, who at one point questioned why the government needs to be involved and private donors aren't taking care of the project if it is such a "great plan."
According to the account of the meeting published in The Aegis, Filkins then brought up the government involvement in the parks and recreation program and public school system, which Woods said is different.
Different? How so, Joe?
Let me state from the outset that I've been as big a skeptic about the Center for the Arts project as anyone. Like Woods, I've blanched at the cost, which according to Filkins is estimated at $60 million, and I and several of my colleagues have continued to ask why school auditoriums and the Amoss Center at Harford Tech - though controlled by Harford Community College - aren't adequate for the county's performing arts venue needs. After all, the citizens of Bel Air put an extra million or so into their new high school to ensure it would have an ample sized auditorium for community events.
But Filkins has a point. How different is an arts center from a soccer complex, a county-owned swimming facility, a public walking trail, a playground, a basketball or tennis court or a multipurpose turf field?
To be sure, many such facilities around the county have received substantial private financial support, just like is expected to happen with the Center for the Arts. Many others, however, have been paid for solely by Mr. and Mrs. Harford County Taxpayer, and not everyone of us necessarily thought we needed or wanted some of them.
I'm like Woods in the sense that I think $60 million is a big piece of change to bite off and, let's remember here, the land is essentially free on top of it, under the complex gift deal the county has worked out with the Graham Estate that controls it.
That $60 million could build a lot of turf fields, outdoor courts, indoor sports facilities and untold numbers of baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse and football fields of the conventional variety. (It could also build almost two elementary schools, and we supposedly have at least three that need replacing; however, given that two of those schools just had among the top MSA test results in the county, there seems to be questionable correlation between facilities and student performance.)
I've heard many recreation council people say the county is not providing enough support on facilities. While that may be true, I also see a lot of facilities that sit idle as much as they are in use. But, are there enough people participating in and interested in watching musical, dance or theater performances or in painting, sculpture and photography to justify having one big center like is proposed? Well, it's possible the numbers of these people could outnumber those interested in youth or adult sports or recreation. Who knows? There's probably a lot who are interested in participating in or viewing all or above.
So, yes, Sallee Filkins makes some good points about the Center for the Arts, just as forcefully, perhaps, as her late mother, Eleanor Kunkel, used to make 30 years ago about the need for better recreation facilities in the county, when she was head of the county's parks and recreation board. A lot of the recreation facilities we enjoy today, had their genesis through Mrs. Kunkel's efforts.
Government resources are finite, although I sometimes wonder if the people running Harford County have any concept of what that means. Typically, those who advocate best and who have the most political strength get what they want in the end. That's probably neither the most efficient nor the fairest way to distribute these assets, but it's how it happens, right or wrong.
As one interest group battles another, it's very much like an athletic contest (or war, as in, to the victor goes the spoils), one where the winner gets the new facilities and the loser is told to try again next year or the year after…