Nearly 15 years ago, Columbia-area residents and officials met to discuss how downtown Columbia should be redeveloped over the next few decades. Those talks ultimately culminated in the Downtown Columbia Plan. That blueprint, approved by the Howard County Council in 2010, ensured among other things that Columbia would one day become a cultural arts center.
Ten years after that approval, Howard County is now one step closer to seeing the reality of those plans.
Two weeks ago, after more than 70 hours of work sessions, the Howard County Council approved a fiscal 2021 budget that included $63 million in capital funding for the new cultural arts center at the current site of Toby’s Dinner Theatre at intersection of Symphony Woods Road and South Entrance Road, just east of Merriweather Post Pavilion.
However, that funding won’t be immediately available. Council members Deb Jung, Liz Walsh and David Yungmann expressed concerns throughout the budget process and initially proposed waiting to fund the cultural center, and new home for Toby’s, until the next fiscal year. On May 27, at the last hour, Yungmann and Jung introduced an amendment for the council to put the funding in contingency: it passed, keeping the cultural center’s fate alive.
If you haven’t been paying attention or don’t know much about the project, here’s what you need to know.
In 2016, after months of deliberation, the County Council approved a $90 million public financing deal and affordable housing plan for downtown Columbia, with Howard Hughes Corp. as the plan’s developer.
“2016 was really when the plan took its next major step,” said Carl DeLorenzo, director of policy and programs for Howard County.
The council, with current County Executive Calvin Ball serving as chair at the time, approved the tax increment financing subsidy, commonly referred to as TIF, to fund the public infrastructure portion of the project.
The legislation determined not only the future of the cultural arts center but also the creation of a transit center, a library, a fire station and more than 400 affordable housing units in downtown Columbia.
“This is a great sustainability model for bringing affordable housing into Columbia,” said DeLorenzo, who’s been working on the project since 2015.
After DeLorenzo and his team created a site plan for what the cultural center and the surrounding area would look like, the Department of Planning and Zoning approved the plan. The county used the plan as a roadmap to apply for federal low-income housing tax credits. If those tax credits were approved, the project would move into full gear.
That happened in July 2019 after years of behind-the-scenes work, bringing the project back into the spotlight.
“Last year, the [Howard County Housing Commission] was awarded the tax credits so we could begin putting the funding together for the cultural center,” DeLorenzo said.
It took DeLorenzo and the budget and finance offices more than eight months to map out a financing plan, the same plan the County Council received this March in time for budget season.
The housing commission’s tax credits require that the building be open and functional by the end of 2024, according to DeLorenzo. 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.
The encroaching timeline pushed the county to ensure capital funding for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.
The total cost of the project, including the affordable housing component, is estimated at $137 million. There is $64 million in secured tax credits, about $63 million requested in general obligation bonds — the portion the County Council must approve — and an additional $10 million of TIF bonds for the parking garage component of the project.
When the plan originated, Howard County invited the Howard County Arts Council and the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, a nonprofit arts education organization, to have a flagship space in the center, according to Coleen West, executive director of the arts council.
West initially planned to move the entire arts council office from Ellicott City to the new cultural center. That plan was in place for five years, from 2014 to 2019, before concerns about financing the project led the county to look elsewhere for an organization that could support the debt, West said.
“We were going to be putting a hefty burden on the Howard County Arts Council. We were looking to another entity to serve that function,” DeLorenzo said.
“We couldn’t make the numbers work. When we did the income projections for the building, we couldn’t cover the debt service as well as the staffing needs we would need to have there,” West said.
Last year the county identified the Department of Recreation and Parks as an alternative with the financial stability needed.
The current plan has the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts on the first floor of the cultural center, along with the lobby and theater, and the second floor housing the Department of Recreation and Parks. The arts council will mostly stay in its Ellicott City location.
“The plan is currently that we would curate and operate one gallery space [in the cultural center] and have an informational space. [The arts council will now] have a very minimal role and presence there,” West said.
The cultural center will be home to both visual and performing arts spaces. Together the spaces will include a 350-seat dinner theater, two black-box theaters, galleries, artist-in-residence studios, classrooms and offices.
“Obviously we would love to be there and have a larger presence," West said. "If [the cultural center is] going to work, this is the best-case scenario for it to work.”
There are 744 total units across five properties being built as part of the project; 417 are affordable units in low-income housing tax credit projects, with 327 market-rate units, according to DeLorenzo.
Joy Gold, an Ellicott City resident, was intrigued when someone told her about the project and the potential for affordable housing near where she was living. She wrote a letter to the County Council to get more information about the project and how she could qualify.
“I’m out here trying to find senior housing that’s affordable for me. I live on Social Security alone. I want to find housing that’s suitable to me,” Gold said.
While Gold said she realizes it will be a few years until she could physically live in one of the affordable housing units, she wanted to see the project approved this year, regardless of the economic uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have to prepare for a future where the virus doesn’t take our every moment of thought,” she said. “That we will come out of this and we’ll have the desire to go to a cultural arts center.”
Peter Engel, executive director of the Howard County Housing Commission, agrees with Gold. He said the county needs these affordable units now more than ever.
According to Engel, Howard County is short more than 5,000 affordable housing units for people earning $50,000 or less and living in the county.
“The need for affordable housing is getting worse now. The county should be using its funding to support projects that support its residents,” Engel said. “We faced an affordable housing crisis before the pandemic.”
During the budget work sessions in April and May, County Council members discussed and questioned the proposed budgets, including the funding for the cultural center. Engel, DeLorenzo and others were part of the virtual work sessions. During one work session, Yungmann asked about requesting an extension from the state for the tax credit, so the council wouldn’t have to approve the funding for the project this fiscal year during the pandemic.
“I don’t want to ask [the state] until we have to,” Engel said. “As soon as we ask that question, we raise concerns that we can meet the application.”
The project can’t function without the affordable housing portion, DeLorenzo said, and attempting to push the project to fiscal 2022 puts the affordable housing tax credit at risk.
“The risk is the state gives these tax credits competitively. They want to know that they’re going to be used for their purpose,” DeLorenzo said.
DeLorenzo and Engel expressed concern that if Howard County did not use the tax credit as prescribed through the county proposal, the county’s reputation would be tarnished. If the county were to apply again in the future, the state might think twice before approving a tax credit, they said.
“We need to have a good historical reputation when we use this program,” DeLorenzo said.
County Council decides
When the council discussed final amendments in anticipation of the fiscal 2021 budget adoption May 27, the cultural center took center stage. That’s when Yungmann and Jung introduced their amendment to put the funding in contingency, pending further council approval.
They wanted to discuss the project and the project’s history of evolution before agreeing to $63 million in capital spending, particularly, they said, in a year of economic uncertainty.
“It was never, ever something we wanted to kill; it was something we wanted to buy some time to dig into,” Yungmann said. “I would like to see us, as we move into the fall, be in a robust discussion about the best possible arts and cultural center we can build.”
Yungmann raised concerns about how the vision of the project has shifted over the years, and he said it was hard to approve large amounts of capital funding when cuts on basic infrastructure were also being approved by the council.
“It seemed like it had evolved so far away from the reason why an arts and culture center was in the master plan,” Yungmann said. “We’ve got one shot at what is an incredibly expensive project. “
However, Engel said the project is “virtually shovel-ready.”
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“We’ve won this tax credit from the state, which is rare and a difficult thing to do,” Engel said. “To say no to that is not economically wise. I understand the concerns about the budget, but I think it’s the government’s job to look ahead and say what we will need.”
Jung said the funding was moved into contingency with the thought to fund the project in fiscal 2022. She said she would consider funding the project in fiscal 2021 only if the economy improves “more than we anticipated” and if she and Yungmann get their questions answered. There have been no details released about the timeline of including funding for the project in the fiscal 2021 budget.
“If we can figure out a way to get the community engaged and make sure everyone’s aware of how much the plans have changed and conduct all the due diligence on the project that would satisfy our questions that we have, I suppose we could potentially let the project move forward,” Jung said.
DeLorenzo called the approval of moving the money into contingency “a very important step” in ensuring the project maintains the timeline carved out to match the low-income tax credit from the state.
“The funding exists; we just have to go through additional oversight and work to be able to release it,” DeLorenzo said. “It’s also important that we continue to abide by the timeline so that we can still have the project built by the end of 2024.”
For some of the stakeholders in the $137 million project, however, it’s about more than the numbers.
“This is more than a building to me, but it’s a place where children can grow through the arts,” said Toby Orenstein, owner of Toby’s Dinner Theatre. “After a world is devastated and people are so depressed, the arts are the best cure for that.”