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‘The moment we’ve been waiting for’: Residents voice support for building of new Columbia cultural center

The debate over a new cultural arts center in Columbia hit its next phase Monday night as the Howard County Council heard 40 testimonials from individuals and organizations at a legislative public hearing.

Adding to the discussion of the evening, People Acting Together in Howard — a community organization that looks to promote equity, diversity and inclusion in Howard County — held a virtual news conference prior to the start of the hearing, with more than 70 participants urging the County Council to pass legislation that would provide funding to build the cultural center.

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Most of Monday night’s testimony at the hearing was individuals advocating to keep the arts and cultural presence in Columbia, many with personal experiences with Toby’s Dinner Theatre.

The project would build the center at the current site of Toby’s 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.

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During the council’s springtime budget discussions, the new cultural center was the topic of many hours of discussion.

Ultimately, council Chair Deb Jung and council member David Yungmann, who had originally expressed concerns about the project’s history of evolution, proposed and passed an amendment to put funding for it in contingency.

That funding has now been moved back to the council for a vote after Howard County Executive Calvin Ball introduced legislation earlier this month. Originally, Ball had proposed a more than $250 million capital budget in April for fiscal 2021 that included funding the new center.

The Rev. Mary Ka Kanahan of St. John United Church in Columbia, one of the speakers at the news conference and during the hearing, said if the County Council didn’t approve the funding, the council would be out of step with what the community wants.

“We’ve arguably been waiting for this moment, hoping, since 2004,” Kanahan said. “We’ve been organized and working with private enterprise civic groups, government, businesses and citizens since 2014 ... Now is the moment we’ve been waiting for.”

The night of testimony was also filled with comments about the federal low-income housing tax credits granted to the Howard County Housing Commission by the state in 2019. Many community members sited the lack of affordable housing in the county as the reason to fund the center.

The urgency of funding the project in fiscal 2021 revolves around the tax credits, which require the building to be open and functional by the end of 2024, according to Carl DeLorenzo, director of policy and programs for Howard County. With a three-year construction time and a year needed for planning, he said, construction would need to start by spring 2021 to be completed in time.

Pastor Tyrone Jones, co-chair of PATH, emphasized the affordable housing component: “If the council does not vote yes [to providing the funding] on Nov. 2, we are in jeopardy of losing the more than $60 million in funding from the state and could compromise our ability to receive future funding from the state in other projects.”

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 — the portion the County Council must approve — and an additional $10 million in tax increment financing subsidy bonds for the parking garage component of the project.

“We need the County Council to take the moral leadership and courage needed to lift up the promise, seal the deal and have the moral integrity to calm the raging doubts of the moment that will dry up our fears,” Jones said during the news conference.

Jung and Yungmann, the two council members who introduced the amendment to put the funding in contingency in the spring, have not said how they will vote at the Nov. 2 council meeting. Council members Christiana Mercer Rigby and Opel Jones have previously voiced support for funding the project, while council member Liz Walsh has said she’s hesitant to spend so much money on a capital project during the economic uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

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