The Right Note: The Right Call

by Mark Kelly April 19, 2018 at 3:45 pm 0

The Right Note is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Last fall, the County Manager informed the Board of his intention to recommend that the county no longer pursue a black box theater project that was required as part of a Virginia Square site plan.

The theater was to be approximately 13,000 square feet with 150 seats, and the space provided essentially rent free to the county for up to 45 years.

This project was put into the site plan in 2012 even though at the time the Artisphere project was flailing and the Signature Theater was preparing to seek a bailout. The county promised a business plan for the new black box theater which would essentially provide maximum benefit and minimum cost to the taxpayers. Many of us wondered at the time if that was possible.

After two failed business plans, County leaders closed the Artisphere in 2015. And by the end of 2014, the County Board had approved $661,000 to pay unpaid taxes, canceled 19 years of rent payments, and provided a $5 million loan for the Signature Theater.

There were several reasons offered by the Manager for this latest move, including the fact that the developer still has not provided a timeline to move forward on what was to be an office building. With the commercial occupancy rate what it is, that construction delay is understandable.

Chief among the rationale was both the cost of building out the interior, at $3 million, and at least $570,000 annually in ongoing operations costs the Manager called “unsustainable.”

It seems as though county officials have finally concluded there is no business plan they can present that will make sense to county taxpayers. And it looks like that decision may be finalized as part of the upcoming County Board meeting.

One topic of discussion at the October 2017 meeting where the Manager first broached this subject publicly was creating for community use additional theater space in new public school buildings.

This same approach could have been applied to the aquatics center. A joint venture at a new school building would almost certainly reduce the overall cost of the project. And, it would open up more space for future lighted soccer fields at the Long Bridge site.

There is little doubt that had the developer moved forward before 2017, county taxpayers would own the costs of this theater and we would be facing how to either pay for the build out or its ongoing operations for the FY 2019 budget.

With the lessons learned from the Artisphere and Signature, our county officials should be commended if they exercise their option to get out of the project, even if that decision was a little slow in coming.

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