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Defunded Artisphere’s Future to be Decided by July

Artisphere signThe Arlington County Board officially canceled the Artisphere project last night, making June 30 the grand finale for Rosslyn’s critically acclaimed but money-losing arts and cultural center.

June 30 is also the deadline the County Board has set for staff to return with a recommendation for next steps for the space, coinciding with the end of Fiscal Year 2015 and the last performances at Artisphere.

Arlington’s lease for the 62,000-square-foot space ends in April 2023, according to Deputy County Manager Carol Mitten, but the County Board could elect to cancel its agreement with owner Monday Properties and hand them back the unique space.

No formal proposals for the center have come forward, but Mitten said the county has had “lots of informal conversations” with outside parties. The cancellation of Artisphere will save taxpayers $2.3 million in FY 2016, and any scheming for the next steps won’t be coming from the county.

“If someone has an idea, they need to translate that into a proposal, because the county isn’t going to come up with a proposal of our own,” Mitten said yesterday. “The desire is that we get out of the business of subsidizing the use of this space… We have this block of one-time money to close out our obligations under the lease, and anything else the county were to do would really involve an outside entity.”

The only public idea to this point has been the vision of MoDev, a software developer conference company, to transform Artisphere into a tech incubator and conference center. MoDev CEO Pete Erickson told ARLnow.com this week that he is putting together a proposal, but he’s not alone.

“I heard that there are four different parties interested in the space, all with a technology center vision, which is awesome,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a deal will get done as the county could then decide to vacate the lease and put it in Monday Properties’ hands. If this happens, this would be bad for Arlington as the benefits of the existing lease would be away and put way more pressure on a new tenant and the building owner than would be necessary.”

According to Rosslyn Business Improvement District President Mary-Claire Burick, a Chinese business delegation recently toured the space and was intrigued. During the visit, Monday Properties representatives expressed a willingness to renovate and transform the space, if necessary, for the next tenant.

And while momentum seems to barreling ahead to transform the space into Arlington’s next major technology center — and potentially Rosslyn’s answer to 1776’s Crystal City investment — Burick said that the location at 1101 Wilson Blvd could return to its roots, when it was the former home of Newseum.

“We’ve had two groups that have been looking at turning it into a museum,” she said in a phone interview this morning. “Because of the grouping of other things in Rosslyn with Arlington Cemetery and the Marine Corps Memorial, we’re really starting to see Rosslyn have more tourism potential, particularly once CEB Tower delivers with its observation deck.”

All parties involved are looking forward to the unique space — with multiple theaters, high ceilings and an outdoor terrace — becoming something that can generate money for the county, rather than lose it. But the County Board’s decision has also left some wondering what the future of arts funding through taxpayer dollars will look like in Arlington.

Mitten said the cultural affairs department is developing a strategic plan that will address just that.

“There’s a belief that there is a clear nexus between our investment in cultural affairs and the arts and economic development,” Mitten said. “The part of the story that’s missing at the moment is how much is enough and in what way is the most effective in order to have it be a real investment and not just an expense.”

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