Proposed arts center costs give some officials pause

MANASSAS — The hefty $33.4 million price tag of constructing a new performing arts center at George Mason Universitys Prince William campus is causing some county officials to rethink the projects scale.

“Honestly, I dont know. Its a lot of money. Were going to have to see if its the right facility for the right cost at the right time,” said Sean T. Connaughton, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

Architect Wayne Hughes of Sterling-based Hughes Group Associates said he believes it is worth the price.

At the campus Board of Advisers meeting Wednesday morning, Hughes outlined a vision of a 1,100-seat theater capable of staging both Broadway plays and community events on the 124-acre campus, west of the city.

“It has the potential to be a unique and vital part of the life of this community,” he said.

Randall Edwards, executive vice president of the campus, is hoping the university will be able to forge an alliance with the county and the city of Manassas similar to an arrangement that led to the construction of the campus Freedom Aquatic and Fitness Center, which now boasts a membership of 7,000.

Edwards would like to see the arts center built by 2007.

“Hopefully, there will come an agreement that will allow us to split the money three different ways,” he said.

Along with New York City architectural firms Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates and Webb Management Services, Hughes company surveyed Prince William County residents and found that 86 percent want a performing arts center, he said.

When asked whether local tax dollars should go toward building the facility and keeping it running, only 9 percent were against using public funds. A majority of those surveyed, 51 percent, supported using tax dollars for the center.

“The community is eager. Theyve expressed their interest,” Hughes said.

The arts center would include a 300-seat teaching theater and a lobby capable of hosting events, according to a feasibility study conducted by Hughes Associates.

The study, funded by the county, the university and the city, estimates that the facility would be able to stage 411 performances a year, with an annual attendance of 200,000.

The facility would cost the city, county and university $984,000 per year to operate. But events at the center would pump $7.4 million per year into the local economy.

Manassas Mayor Marvin L. Gillum said he strongly supports the project.

“Its a quality-of-life issue. The renaissance, the revitalization of downtown, we want to become a cultural oasis,” he said.

Connaughton, too, said he would like to see an arts center in the county. But he says much will need to be done at the bargaining table.

“We would obviously have to work out the issues the size of the facility, its locality and its cost,” he said.

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