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Columbia cultural arts center funding approved by Howard County Council

The yearslong and hotly contested new cultural arts center in Columbia received funding approval from the Howard County Council on Monday night during the council’s first vote of 2021.

In a 3-1-1 vote, with County Council Chair Liz Walsh voting against and member Deb Jung abstaining, the council agreed to fund the $63 million in general obligation bonds.

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“I’ve always supported the arts center for Howard County. I couldn’t have supported the terms [of the project] that were presented in April,” David Yungmann, the lone Republican on the council, said as he cast his vote for the funding. “I believe the terms have improved dramatically.”

Members Opel Jones and Christiana Mercer Rigby also voted in favor.

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The council vote comes after months of back and forth within the county government over funding for the center.

At the end of the budget process in the spring, Yungmann and Jung introduced and passed an amendment to put the funding in contingency while they collected more information from the county on the capital project. In October, County Executive Calvin Ball introduced legislation to move that funding out of contingency. The legislation was then tabled until it came for a final vote Monday night.

The project will be built at the current site of Toby’s Dinner Theatre at the intersection of Symphony Woods Road and South Entrance Road, just east of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The center is planned to be home to both visual and performing arts spaces, including a 350-seat dinner theater, two black-box theaters, galleries, artist-in-residence studios, classrooms and offices.

The project also includes an affordable housing component with 744 total units across five properties being built as part of the project; 417 are affordable units as part of federal low-income housing tax credits granted to the Howard County Housing Commission by the state in 2019, with 327 market-rate units.

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In October, the council heard testimonials in favor and against the legislation. The Rev. Mary Ka Kanahan of St. John United Church in Columbia testified in support of the capital project three months ago. Kanahan has been working with People Acting Together in Howard — a community organization that looks to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in Howard County, where she is a clergy member of the strategy team and chair of the affordable housing task force — since 2014 to bring affordable housing to Columbia through this project.

“We’re so grateful that the County Council has taken action to move Columbia into a future that brings equity, inclusion and justice,” Kanahan said. “This project moves Columbia into the 21st century with a bolder and bigger future for everyone.”

Funding for the project was first suggested in April when Ball released his $250 million fiscal 2021 capital budget which included funding for the cultural center.

The total cost of the project, including the affordable housing component, is estimated at $137 million. There is $64 million in the secured tax credits, about $63 million requested in general obligation bonds and an additional $10 million in tax increment financing subsidy bonds for the parking garage component of the project.

“We have worked for many years to get to this point and create a first-class art and culture center for Howard County that will spur people’s love of art and theater and will be accessible to all residents,” Ball said in a statement.

“The contributions that organizations like Columbia Center for the Theatrical Arts, Toby’s Dinner Theatre and [the Department of] Recreation and Parks have historically made to all residents of our community will continue in the new center. Additionally, it will be a vital component of the Downtown Columbia Plan and an important element in expanding affordable housing in the area.”

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