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Letter: Making the case for a performing arts center in Harford County

Editor:

How interesting that The Aegis chose to publish Allan Vought's Aug. 3, commentary, "My string quartet salon vs. your turf field" in the Sports section, pitting the arts against athletics. As the Executive Director of the Center for the Arts and a former Harford County Public Schools physical education teacher and former coach of both field and individual sports, it is very shortsighted that a community as vibrant and educated as Harford County has to choose between the two. Or perhaps, since their earlier objections to the arts center have proven false, The Aegis was just trying another tactic to defeat the arts center by raising the ire of sports fans and parents by inventing a battle.

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The Aegis has tried to make the case for using the Amoss Center and the public schools in lieu of an arts center. However, in 2005 the newly founded Center for the Arts met with Harford Community College to request better access to the Amoss and Chesapeake theatres for local arts groups. The college shares the Amoss Center with Harford Technical High School. Utilization of the theatres was noted as 93 percent and 95 percent of capacity in 2005 and with the addition of a new theater major, the college projected no availability for outside groups. In addition, the mandatory use of technical (sound/lighting/stage management) staff at union wages is prohibitively expensive for local groups. The college does an excellent job of hosting many wonderful programs and performances in the theatres so there is no intent to diminish the cultural programs they present for the community.

In response to The Aegis' suggestion to utilize the public schools, the Center for the Arts and the Harford County Cultural Arts Board spent 2011 working with the Harford County Public Schools to create a process for booking local groups in the schools with the guarantee that the arts organizations could not be "bumped" at the last minute. This partnership is wonderful but a temporary Bandaid. The reality is that the public school theatres are utilized for a multitude of HCPS meetings and events in support of their mission, in addition to providing space for the school's own drama programs, leaving little time for outside rentals. Use of the public schools also usually requires that school faculty spend their weekends running expensive sound and lighting equipment, owned by the school for the outside shows in addition to their regular jobs.

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Bel Air High School Theatre has been a wonderful addition and immensely popular, as confirmed by the standing room only audiences for the Titanic production presented by the school's very talented Bel Air Drama Company. But the list of arts organizations that have access to the facility is restricted and the school only has so many weekends available for rent in addition to their own programs. In fact, the last word from HCPS was to hurry up and build the arts center because as the demands of the school system change, they will be looking to rent space at the arts center.

In reference to the portrayal of the proposed arts facility as "grandiose," let's review the work that has been completed by the Center for the Arts through the generosity of private donors, sponsors, Dancing for the Arts celebrity dancers, the county and private foundations.

1. Cultural plan – assessed the readiness of the county for a cultural center;

2. Feasibility study – assessed the demand, identified the cultural gaps and proposed solutions;

3. Case study – identified funding sources;

4. Business plan – determined the economic viability and sustainability;

5. Economic impact statement – determined a $6.9 million economic benefit to the community during the first year of operation; and

6. Site programming, master plan and conceptual design – prepared based upon the needs identified in the studies above.

The studies have also been revised to reflect changing economic conditions since 2006. What is very clear is that access to state-of-the-art theater space, secure, humidity and temperature controlled gallery space and amphitheater and special event space for large events over 500 does not exist in the county.

The goal of the analyses was not to justify proceeding with a vision generated by a small group of art lovers. The goal was to determine our county's cultural needs and create solutions for the future. The Center for the Arts has done just that by working with its community partners and the architects to help elected officials and the public visualize the opportunities to create a facility that will nurture and celebrate the creativity of its citizens.

The recent gift of a 41-acre parcel of land in Abingdon from the Estate of Emily Bayless Graham, for the specific purpose of "erect[ing] a performing arts center for use by the people of Harford County" cannot be ignored. The courts stipulated that in exchange for the land the cultural center must be constructed within seven years or the land reverts back to the estate. Current zoning would permit between 205 and 410 residential units on the land. What a shame to let such an incredible gift of land, in a prime location adjacent to I-95, be used for housing when an overwhelming demand for an arts center for this region is clearly documented. The arts center will certainly be a less intensive use and traffic generator than development of the site into hundreds of homes.

Building a state-of-the-art community cultural center will be expensive. The Center for the Arts can be constructed in phases. Government resources are finite - all the more reason to work together instead of pitting one against the other. Skills fostered through creativity are in high demand in the workplace. The arts improve the quality of our lives, improve student achievement in school and are a vibrant sector of our economy.

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At this point it is up to the citizens who believe that Harford County needs a community arts center to lend a voice by contacting/emailing their elected officials, friends and neighbors in support of the project.

Sallee Kunkel Filkins

Executive director, Center for the Arts

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