by Heather Mongilio — September 29, 2015 at 12:00 pm 1,018 0

Former County Manager Barbara Donnellan (via Arlington County)

County decisions on large projects like the Columbia Pike Streetcar, aquatics center and Artisphere have reflected a certain level of distrust in government, said former County Manager Barbara Donnellan.

“I think people’s trust of government at all levels has changed,” Donnellan said, in a video interview produced by the county.

Donnellan, who served more than 30 years in the Arlington County government, including five as county manager, said she watched the county move from being more short-term focused in approaching renovations and other projects to taking on larger projects and making longer-term capital improvement plans, a shift she credits to County Board Chair Mary Hynes, who’s retiring after this year.

The Kettler Capitals Iceplex above the Ballston mall garage, which Donnellan advocated for, was one of the first large projects in a long time, she said. Since then, the county has pushed large projects like the Artisphere, the Columbia Pike streetcar and the Long Bridge Park aquatics center — but struggled in its execution and in selling the big projects to an increasingly skeptical community.

“I think the ability to spend money on high profile projects became an issue,” Donnellan said.

The streetcar debate was the first time the county had seen a large community effort against a county project, she said, adding that she had to hire a communications team to fight against misinformation being spread by streetcar opponents.

“So by giving that project up, we lost a lot of money that was going to support that project, but I believe the politicians at the time felt that it would calm the community down and build trust back by saying we’re smart enough to change course when needed,” Donnellan said.

Artisphere, which closed down over the summer, was another area where the community and government didn’t see eye to eye, she said.

“In all fairness, the Artisphere had done some great things. It really did have acclaim it was getting in the region,” Donnellan said. “But it had lost the trust and support of our elected officials and some in the community to the point where as the manager I had to make a lot of decisions.”

Donnellan said she had floated Artisphere for a couple of years but eventually had to pull the plug, a decision that upset some in the community.

“I look at it as great communities try things,” she said. “And if they don’t work, great communities pull way from things or they rethink them.”

The aquatics center in Long Bridge Park is one of the projects that the community might need to rethink, she said. Currently, the county is looking a partnership with the City of Alexandria in order to secure the funding needed to build the “state-of-the-art” facility.

“And just to clear that up, the only reason the aquatics center was not built is because the bids came in way too high,” Donnellan said.

She attributes the high bids to the inclusion of a specialized heating and air conditioning system not generally used at pools. The system is more efficient, she said, but added that ambiguity in its specifications may have made contractors increase their bids.

“So that could be tightened up and that could be something that happens in the future, as well,” she said.


by ARLnow.com — June 30, 2015 at 4:35 pm 1,601 0

County Manager Barbara Donnellan presents her FY 2014 budget on Feb. 20, 2013Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan and the staff of Artisphere are saying farewell.

Today is Donnellan’s last day as the top executive in Arlington County government, before her retirement, which was announced in March.

Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz will serve as acting county manager while the county continues to conduct a nationwide search for Donnellan’s permanent replacement.

Donnellan sent the following goodbye memo to county staff this afternoon, after spending much of the morning walking around county government headquarters and saying goodbye to staffers in person.

Friends: I could not leave today without thanking you all for your hard work and your many contributions that have helped make Arlington a great community.

How quickly thirty-one-and-a-half years have flown by. It has been an amazing ride. Together, we have accomplished so much. For me, the most satisfying aspect of this job has been the opportunity to come to work each day and interact with such a talented group of people. But all great things must come to an end.

Tomorrow, I start a new chapter, and I’m looking forward to exploring new opportunities. Under Mark Schwartz’s able leadership, I know that you will continue to do great things.

Again, thank you for everything. It has been such a privilege.

All the best,


Also bidding adieu is Artisphere, which is set to permanently close its doors after today.

The staff of the cultural center in Rosslyn sounded a proud, defiant note in a goodbye message sent to its email list this afternoon. That note is below, after the jump.


by ARLnow.com — May 28, 2015 at 1:45 pm 0

Arlington logoArlington has launched a new hotline for its employees to report fraud, waste and abuse in county government.

The hotline was announced today by outgoing Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan. It will be run by an “experienced third-party provider” and will be “a confidential and secure way” to report suspected financial malfeasance, via phone or a secure website, the county said today.

Employees calling in or logging on to the 24/7 hotline may include their name or remain anonymous when reporting.

“By putting in place whistleblower protection and a fraud, waste, and abuse hotline, we are reinforcing County government’s deep commitment to good and ethical government,” Donnellan said in a press release.

The press release says the hotline is “part of the emphasis [Donnellan] has placed on high ethical standards during her tenure as County Manager.” Each report will be reviewed by a “County Review Committee, composed of staff appointed by the County Manager.”

Employees who do identify themselves in their reports will be protected by a new administrative whistleblower policy, the county said.

by Ethan Rothstein — May 14, 2015 at 3:30 pm 1,269 0

Chief Jay Farr (photo via Arlington County)The Arlington County Police Department now has a permanent replacement for retired Chief Doug Scott.

Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan announced today that acting chief Jay Farr will ascend to the permanent job after serving in Scott’s stead since March. Farr has previously served as deputy county manager and deputy chief of police for systems management, operations and criminal Investigations, and has served in the ACPD since 1990.

“Jay has demonstrated a commitment to excellence during his more than two decades in Arlington,” Donnellan said in a press release. “He brings strong leadership skills, an outstanding professional background, and a true passion for connecting communities with law enforcement. He is the right man to lead the department into the future.”

Donnellan said she conducted a nationwide search, but determined the right person for the job already had it. Farr is a former U.S. Marine who served on the presidential helicopter detail before becoming a police officer.

“I am honored at the opportunity to lead this great department and will maintain an unwavering commitment to community policing,” Farr said in the release. “I strive to instill a sense of teamwork with our communities, officers and regional law enforcement partners.”

In addition to leading the county’s police, he’s also teaching future officers: he’s an adjunct professor of criminal justice at George Mason University and teaches for the University of Phoenix.

Photo via Arlington County

by Ethan Rothstein — March 20, 2015 at 5:15 pm 3,464 0

County Manager Barbara Donnellan presents her FY 2014 budget on Feb. 20, 2013

(Updated at 8:15 a.m.) Almost half of Arlington’s elected officials will have retired or resigned by Jan. 1, 2016, starting with Chris Zimmerman’s retirement from the Arlington County Board in February 2014.

At the same time, the leadership of the county’s staff is having a major changing of the guard, losing four department heads since last March, not including the impending retirement of County Manager Barbara Donnellan, effective June 30.

“The only constant in life is change,” County Board member Jay Fisette told ARLnow.com yesterday. In January of next year, Fisette and Libby Garvey will be the only Board members to have begun to serve before April 2014.

The list of leaders who have left or are leaving county government reads like a who’s who of Arlington agenda-setters in recent memory:

Rep. Jim Moran, Del. Bob Brink, Board members Zimmerman, Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada, Del. Rob Krupicka, School Board members Sally Baird, Noah Simon and Abby Raphael, Treasurer Frank O’Leary, Donnellan, Community Planning, Housing and Development Director Bob Brosnan, Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott, Department of Human Services Director Susanne Eisner and the late Terry Holzheimer, Arlington Economic Development Director, who died last year of a heart attack.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever seen so much change at once,” said Eric Dobson, a former Planning Commission chairman and Arlington native who serves as the Northern Virginia government liaison with the NAIOP Commercial Real Estate Development Association.

While the staff turnover is staggering — five of the county’s 14 department directors will be replaced — many county officials say the transitions will be seamless. Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz, who will become interim county manager on July 1, said that’s partly because of Donnellan’s forward thinking.

Arlington County Board Chair Mary Hynes speaks to the Arlington Civic Federation“I think we have great bench strength,” the Boston native and avid Red Sox fan said. “Barbara has always talked about succession planning. You need to have that security. At the same time, I think it’s a good thing that an organization renews itself.”

Donnellan’s departure will have lasting effects, colleagues said. Many offered effusive praise of her work over the past 31 years, particularly her five years as county manager.

“She will be sorely missed,” said Kevin Shooshan, chairman of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and vice president of Shooshan Company, a Ballston-based real estate firm. “Everyone in Arlington County was a fan of Barbara Donnellan. People underestimate what that job entails, which is running that entire billion-dollar organization. It’s a big job and a big budget, and she’s done a great job for several years. Everyone’s going to be very sad to see her go.”

Confidence does not abound, however, regarding the future of the Arlington County Board. Hynes and Tejada represent a combined two decades of Board experience, and when the dust settles in November’s election, the future of Arlington could look different.

“That is a far more significant issue than the administrative staff, which has a deep pool,” Fisette said. “Three people set the direction for the Board. The community’s vision can be changed in subtle and harsh ways.”

Five Democrats have announced their candidacy for the two open seats — Peter Fallon, Christian Dorsey, School Board Chair James Lander, Katie Cristol and Andrew Schneider — and one independent, longtime Arlington Green candidate Audrey Clement. No Republicans have declared, nor has any candidate like John Vihstadt announced his or her intention to run.

Still, Vihstadt’s election and resounding re-election last year is fresh in the minds of many in Arlington politics. No one seems to know who — if anyone — will try to emulate Vihstadt’s combination of fiscal conservatism and progressive stances on social issues. Some Democrats running are championing platforms of change, but few have offered specifics of how they would operate any different from Hynes or Tejada. (more…)

by Ethan Rothstein — March 18, 2015 at 11:00 am 2,120 0

Renderings of the future Long Bridge Park Aquatics, Health & Fitness FacilityThe delayed and oft-maligned plans for the Long Bridge Aquatics Center are being thrust back into the forefront, and Arlington County is hoping the public can guide its next steps.

On Tuesday the Arlington County Board charged County Manager Barbara Donnellan — and, after June, interim County Manager Mark Schwartz — with undertaking a broad public input process and coming back with recommendations for the aquatics center and the second phase of the Long Bridge Park project in January 2016.

The Board that hears the recommendations and moves forward with the park’s second phase of construction will lack the current chair and vice chair, Mary Hynes and Walter Tejada, who are retiring at the end of the year.

“A lot has changed in Arlington in the years since we began plans to develop Long Bridge Park,” Donnellan said in a press release. “Given budget realities and the changing needs of our community, it makes sense to broadly engage the community in a thoughtful look at options to determine the best path forward.”

The new proposal figures to be significantly scaled down from the previous plans, which were put on hold when construction bids came in well over the project’s $79.2 million budget. Arlington had hoped it could receive funding if the aquatics center were used in the D.C. Olympics in 2024, but the city lost the bid to Boston last year.

With a community facilities study fully under way, reshaping the transit future of Columbia Pike and Crystal City and other efforts, County Board member Vihstadt said “we have a lot on our plate this year” and asked Donnellan if she feels county staff can manage taking on another initiative.

“I think it would irresponsible not to give it one more shot this year,” Donnellan said. “This is a brownfield we have the opportunity to bring forward into a wonderful asset for the community, and I don’t want to lose this opportunity.”

The Board asked if Donnellan could bring forward recommendations by November or December, but Donnellan pushed for January as a timetable.

“I hope it doesn’t drag on forever,” Tejada said.

While it may be scaling back its ambitions, Arlington still has $64 million earmarked for Long Bridge Park. County voters approved $44 million in bond funding toward the park, and developers have chipped in another $20 million as community benefits.

Phase I of the park’s construction is already finished, with turf fields, parking, an esplanade and a rain garden. Arlington has to date spent about $15 million of its $79.2 million budget for Phase II on various work, including rebuilding Long Bridge Drive, engineering services, utilities and soil work.

The outreach process for the park will begin next month, with a “reconstituted” Long Bridge Park Advisory Committee, public surveys and community meetings. The county is also seeking partnerships and/or sponsorships, hoping business interests or other entities can inject more funds into the project.

by ARLnow.com — March 13, 2015 at 11:40 am 4,493 0

Barbara Donnellan speaking before the Arlington County Civic Federation(Updated at 12:20 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan announced her retirement Friday morning.

In an email to county employees (below), Donnellan — the top executive in county government — said she would step down June 30.

Pending the selection of a new, permanent county manager, Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz will serve as acting county manager.

Donnellan was first named county manager in 2010, after beginning her career in Arlington County government as a budget analyst in 1983. She was the Arlington’s first permanent female county manager.

Schwartz, a 30-year Arlington resident, has served in county government since 2005. He was the county’s Chief Financial Officer before being named Deputy County Manager.

Donnellan’s resignation, while somewhat unexpected, comes at a time when some local leaders have been privately questioning the county government’s ability to effectively execute large-scale projects. Such grumbles were exacerbated by the cancellation of the county’s delayed and increasingly expensive streetcar project.

In a press release (below, after the jump), County Board Chair Mary Hynes praised Donnellan’s leadership.

“Barbara has been the consummate professional County Manager,” Hynes said. “She has kept her eye on the needs of Arlingtonians — residents and businesses — and given her heart, her intellect, and her passion to serving this community for more than 30 years. All five County Board members are tremendously grateful to her.”

Donnellan’s letter to county staff:

It has been my honor and pleasure to serve Arlington County since 1983. From my various seats – including budget analyst, finance director, director of libraries, County Manager – I have had the privilege of being part of, and helping to build, our community. And we have a lot to be proud of.

I have served Arlington County with great pride for more than three decades. While I feel in my heart that I could lead this organization for many more years, it is the right time for me to retire and start a new chapter in my life. My last day will be June 30, 2015.

Any success that I have had throughout my Arlington career has only been possible thanks to you. You are energetic, thoughtful, smart professionals who dedicate yourselves to helping to build our community. My gratitude to you is boundless.

The County Board has named Mark Schwartz as Acting Manager; he will do a great job and I know you all will support him as you have supported me.

We have an excellent leadership team in place and I have every confidence that I will leave Arlington in great hands. I will honestly miss the laughter and joy that we all shared each day, while accomplishing much for the community. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for all that you do for our community.

I’ll be on the job for another couple of months and I hope to see you around the County. I have built deep connections in Arlington over many, many years, and I will undoubtedly be seeing you around Arlington in the years to come. I hope our paths cross again, and often.

Best regards,

Barbara M. Donnellan
County Manager

After the jump, Arlington County’s press release about Donnellan’s resignation.


by ARLnow.com — February 19, 2015 at 12:25 pm 1,807 0

County Manager Barbara Donnellan presents her FY 2014 budget on Feb. 20, 2013(Updated at 12:50 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan has presented a $1.156 billion proposed budget to the County Board.

The budget keeps the county’s current real estate tax rate — of $0.996 per $100 in value — the same, but would result in a net tax hike for homeowners thanks to property assessment increases.

The county’s real estate tax base has increased 3.4 percent, thanks largely to a 4.9 percent increase in single family home assessments and a 4.7 percent increase in apartment building assessments. (New construction added over 0.7 percent to the base.)

The average Arlington homeowner will pay $7,567 — an extra $23 per month, or $281 per year — in total county taxes and fees under the proposed budget.

For owners of Arlington office buildings, which have experienced record levels of vacancies thanks in part to BRAC, taxes will go down. Office assessments decreased 4.5 percent, while hotel assessments decreased 4.7 percent.

Donnellan says she was able to balance the budget and close a forecasted $4 million budget gap without making any formal cuts. Healthcare and retirement costs were lower than expected and some “efficiencies” were found in the budget, she said.

“I think Arlington have been really fortunate,” Donnellan said of the budget, which she was able to balance without significant cuts despite the high office vacancies.

No changes to personal property, stormwater, business improvement district or business license taxes have been proposed. While there’s no change proposed in the household solid waste rate, Donnellan does propose a 1.8 percent increase in the water/sewer rate. Some parks and recreation fee changes have been proposed, including reductions in the rates for aquatics and gymnastics programs.

While not in her base budget, Donnellan included an optional slate of cuts for the Board to consider. The “budget reduction options” include $4.1 million in cuts and savings in various parts of the budget, including:

  • Closing Artisphere, but reinvesting half of the $900,000 in annual savings into the county’s Cultural Affairs program (last year Artisphere was funded with $1.8 million in county funds, half of which were designated “one-time” funds.)
  • Converting Metrobus 3A service in Arlington to less expensive ART bus service
  • Consolidating an elementary after-school program with Arlington public schools
  • County vehicle fleet reductions and utility savings
  • Publishing one fewer Citizen newsletter per year
  • Reductions to bike and pedestrian programs
  • Reductions to employment services programs in the Dept. of Human Services
  • Reductions to the community energy program
  • Reductions to planning resources
  • Reductions to tree planting
  • Reductions to library materials
  • Reductions to urban agriculture
  • Eliminating a proposed increase in funding to courts and constitutional officers, meant to offset state cuts

Donnellan said her suggested cuts wouldn’t result in “totally outraged” community members, but would likely receive some push back from “interested parties.”

“They’re not core services in the sense of how we deliver day-to-day business,” Donnellan said of the proposals.

At $1.156 billion, Donnellan’s budget is a 0.7 percent increase over last year’s $1.15 billion adopted budget. The proposed budget includes a $710.9 operating budget for the county government. The remainder would go to Arlington Public Schools, which will see an overall funding increase of $13.2 million, or 3.1 percent.

APS Superintendent Dr. Patrick Murphy will proposed his Fiscal Year 2016 budget tonight.


by ARLnow.com — January 22, 2015 at 3:05 pm 1,996 0

ACPD Chief Doug Scott at the WCA meeting 3/13/14Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott is retiring, County Manager Barbara Donnellan told county staff members today.

Scott has been police chief in Arlington for 12 years. He began his law enforcement career in 1975 as a Fairfax County police cadet. He served as Fairfax County’s police chief from 1995-1998.

Arlington is planning to begin a “national recruitment” for its next police chief. Scott will officially retire on March 20.

Donnellan’s memo to county staff:

Colleagues – It seems that all good things must come to an end. Doug Scott is retiring from Arlington County after serving as our outstanding Police Chief for 12 years.

Doug is retiring after a 40-year career in law enforcement. He has done an excellent job of serving our community and our organization – not only as our police chief, but also as a stalwart member of my Executive Leadership Team. Doug is always thoughtful, measured, and focused on the bigger strategic picture. He is results-oriented and focused on solutions and I very much value his contributions to the big questions we wrestle with. He is a tremendous supporter of his officers and staff.

Doug will be with us until March 20. Over the next couple of months, I will name an Acting Police Chief and begin a national recruitment.

We will miss Doug and his wise counsel. I am grateful to Doug for his service to our community and our organization. I know you will all join me in wishing Doug all the best as he and his family enter this new chapter in their lives.


Scott’s biography from the county website:

Chief Douglas Scott has served as Arlington’s Chief of Police since 2003. Chief Scott began his law enforcement career as a police cadet with the Fairfax County Police Department in 1975 and became the department’s Chief of Police in 1995. In 1998, he retired from Fairfax County and was named Chief of Police in the City of Fairfax Police Department. He left local law enforcement briefly in 2000 when he accepted an Assistant Inspector General position for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Chief Scott holds an associate’s degree in police science, a bachelor’s degree in applied behavioral science and a master’s degree in public administration from George Mason University. He is also a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy and National Executive Institute as well as the Executive Leaders Program at the Center for Homeland Defense & Security. From 2009-2010, Chief Scott served as the president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (VACP). Currently, Chief Scott serves as an Executive Board Member for the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), after having served for many years on its Highway Safety, Environmental Crimes, Terrorism and Resolutions Committees.

by Ethan Rothstein — January 12, 2015 at 1:30 pm 0

New Director of Community Housing, Planning and Development Steven CoverArlington’s department of Community Planning, Housing and Development will have a new director after Robert Brosnan, who has been director since 2011, retires in March.

Replacing Brosnan will be Steven Cover, who comes from Madison, Wisconsin, where he was the director of planning and community and economic development. He had served in the position since 2011. Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Outback Bowl-winning Badgers.

(In 2012, under Cover’s watch, Madison was named the best college football town in the country by USA Today.)

“Steven is a great addition to our team,” Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan said in a news release. “His long and successful career in local government makes him the ideal choice to lead CPHD, a key department responsible for turning the County’s Smart Growth vision into reality.”

Brosnan had served as the county’s planning director since 1988 before being named the head of CPHD. Brosnan will stay on an additional six months “aid with the transition and to work on a special project for [Donnellan],” county spokeswoman Mary Curtius told ARLnow.com. When asked if she could clarify what special project Brosnan would work on, Curtius said “not at this time.”

Before Madison, Cover had worked heading the planning department in Atlanta, Ga., and in Anne Arundel County, Md. Before entering public service, Cover worked as an architect.

Photo via Arlington County

by Ethan Rothstein — December 19, 2014 at 11:35 am 1,219 0

Artisphere during the Silver Clouds exhibitArtisphere is very likely to close on June 30, barring a change of heart from the majority of the Arlington County Board, and while many agree with the Board’s decision, the local art scene is lamenting the loss.

Artisphere — with multiple theaters for programming of everything from local orchestras to international groups with experimental sounds and galleries for its free visual art displays — will continue operating as planned, Executive Director Jose Ortiz said.

“The show must go on,” he told ARLnow.com yesterday. “It was definitely a disappointing decision … We have programs that are planned and on the books, from exhibitions and performances to rentals. The items that are on the books must continue.”

ARLnow.com’s unscientific poll yesterday asked readers if they agreed with County Manager Barbara Donnellan’s recommendation to close Artisphere at the end of the fiscal year. Some 57 percent of poll respondents — out of nearly 3,000 votes — said they agree with the decision. Ortiz said he didn’t necessarily disagree with it.

“Barbara said it. This was a business decision,” he said.

Some critics of the move are calling it “short-sighted,” alluding to the multimedia center’s uptick in both revenues and visitors in the past year or more. Donnellan said the theater would require $2 million or more per year to stay open, but vowed to continue the revitalization efforts in Rosslyn.

In an era when communities throughout the country and especially in the D.C. area have used arts and culture to successfully revitalize neighborhoods, Donnellan’s recommendation to close the county’s most vital cultural asset is both shocking and remarkably short-sighted,” wrote Phil Hutinet, editor of D.C. arts website East City Art.

Ortiz started at Artisphere four months after it opened to lots of hype and hope the it would be revenue neutral. He said he would have “helped people understand what Artisphere was” if he had been involved from the beginning. Still, he said, he’s proud of the four years of programming the center has showcased.

“My hope is people will remember us because they were part of a project or they attended something here that blew their minds,” he said.

A full statement from Oritz on Artisphere’s closing, after the jump: (more…)

by Ethan Rothstein — December 18, 2014 at 10:30 am 1,668 0

Signature Theatre (photo via Signature Theatre website)The Arlington County Board unanimously approved a $5 million loan and 19 years of free rent for Shirlington’s Signature Theatre at its meeting yesterday.

The decision came just hours after County Manager Barbara Donnellan recommended closing Rosslyn’s Artisphere next June. The County Board ultimately decided that the two arts organizations’ situations were different enough to begin a new investment as it acknowledged the failure of a previous one.

“Signature really is an Arlington treasure,” County Board Chair Jay Fisette said. “It reaches into our community and impacts our community in substantial ways.”

The theater will receive the loan at a low, 1 percent interest rate; it will no longer have to pay $411,000 in unpaid county taxes and fees; and $2.7 million of its $7.7 million debt to United Bank will be forgiven.

“Signature will pay back this loan in full and on time,” the theater’s managing director, Maggie Boland, told the Board. “We often joke that ‘hope is not a strategy’ at Signature. We don’t commit to a production plan that we can’t afford.”

Signature’s yearly debt payments will be reduced from more than $1 million to about $300,000, a difference that county Director of Management and Finance Michelle Cowen called “transformative.”

“It allows them to bulk up on their balance sheet, which is in poor shape,” Cowen said.

There were 11 speakers from the public, and eight of them spoke in support of the County Board’s action. Many of the supporters were either current or former members of the Signature in the Schools program, Shirlington business owners or those with active interests in the theater’s success.

“We believe Signature is vital to the overall success of Shirlington and the greater Arlington County community,” Ken Mosig, director of asset management for the Village at Shirlington’s parent company, Federal Realty Investment Trust, said. “Their programs attract people to the Village of Shirlington. Having Signature Theatre as an entertainment venue has helped bring 100,000 people to the area per year.”

Among the dissenters were Jim Hurysz and Tim Wise, two frequent County Board critics and opponents of government spending.

“Taxpayers who oppose public subsidies for the arts do not oppose the arts,” Wise said. “We just think the arts should pay for themselves.”

Board member Libby Garvey asked Boland why they couldn’t raise ticket prices to generate the additional revenue, needed, but Boland said that if the tickets were any more expensive, “that would be detrimental to our business.”

Although the County Board unanimously approved the loan — the money for which comes from FY 2014 closeout funds — several members indicated that this would be the last chance Signature has for county funding for some time.

“We don’t want to be here again,” Fisette said.

Photo via Signature Theatre website

by ARLnow.com — December 17, 2014 at 4:20 pm 5,309 0

Artisphere sign(Updated at 5:20 p.m.) Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan says the county should close the Artisphere cultural center in Rosslyn.

Donnellan made the recommendation at today’s County Board meeting, after being charged by the Board earlier this year to study Artisphere and suggest a way forward for the money-losing, county-run center.

“I will be recommending that the county close the Artisphere as a cultural center in fiscal year 2016,” Donnellan said. “This was a business decision… this was a tough decision, a disappointing one. The reality is that the Artisphere has not lived up to projections.”

Donnellan said Artisphere, in her opinion, would require “substantial ongoing tax support.”

“That is not what we promised our community when we opened Artisphere,” she said. Artisphere will remain open through June 30. It will close after that, if the County Board adopts Donnellan’s recommendation. After Donnellan gave her report, it became clear that the Board was behind her decision and it’s likely the art center will close on June 30.

“I support what you suggested, that next June, Artisphere would close as we know it,” Board Chair Jay Fisette said. “My hope is whatever option will move forward on our economic competitiveness goals one way or another.”

County Board member John Vihstadt, who had used the Artisphere as an example of wasteful county spending in his election campaign this year, obliquely referenced the county’s cancellation of the streetcar last month.

“I think we all realize the changing course on a long community initiative, as has happened in the last few years and months, is never easy,” he said. Speaking to reporters after the meeting had adjourned, he added, “I think it was the right decision. I was concerned about the Artisphere all along.”

County staff will be studying options for sub-leasing Artisphere to a private company or a private-public partnership in the “arts, media, technology” space, or returning it to landlord Monday Properties, Donnellan said.

She called the recommendation “a repositioning, not a retreat.” County staff will be tasked with coming up with a new art plan for the county, one that reflects current fiscal realities.

“Smart communities know when to reevaluate decisions,” Donnellan said.

Here Cafe + Bar in ArtisphereThe 62,000 square foot facility opened with a flourish, at a cost of $6.7 million in October 2010. Optimistic projections of a quarter million annual visitors quickly crashed down to earth in 2011. Visitor revenue was 75 percent below expectations, and Artisphere’s in-house restaurant closed after just a few months in business.

Arlington Economic Development assumed control of Artisphere by the end of 2011, and began implementing a business plan that included shorter hours and actively renting the facility for non-art-related events. The changes were successful by some measures, but problems remained — the facility again went over budget in Fiscal Year 2013. Last month, County Board allocated $1.3 million in its annual budget close-out for Artisphere-related expenses next year.

Donnellan told reporters after her report that 20 part-time and 12 full-time staff work at Artisphere, and some may be able to continue working in other areas of the county, but there will be some who lose their jobs.

The County Board may officially decide to close Artisphere before its April budget motion, Vihstadt said, and Donnellan said she will soon begin discussions with Monday Properties about the space’s future.

This evening, Donnellan will ask the Board to approve a $5 million loan to another art center, Signature Theatre. She said the two recommendations are “business decisions” and should be looked at separately.

by Ethan Rothstein — December 11, 2014 at 3:30 pm 5,255 0

Signature Theatre (photo via Signature Theatre website)(Updated at 4:10 p.m.) Arlington County could come to the rescue for Signature Theatre‘s financial troubles.

County Manager Barbara Donnellan is recommending the county lend the Shirlington theater $5 million, to be repaid over 19 years at a low 1 percent interest, she announced today.

The Arlington County Board will decide whether to approve the theater’s new financing plan at its recessed meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17. If approved, the county would also forgive Signature for $411,000 in unpaid lease and utility payments, and not collect rent for the term of the loan.

“Signature Theatre is key to Shirlington’s success,” Donnellan said in a press release. “This restructuring will put Signature on a sound financial footing and help ensure that it will continue to draw thousands of people to Arlington every year. This loan, which Signature will repay over the next two decades, is the basis of a responsible financial plan. It will support one of the County’s most important arts organizations, an organization that yields important cultural and economic benefits for our entire community.”

The $5 million will be allocated from FY 2014 closeout funds, Donnellan said. The loan removes Signature from consideration for future county cultural grants. Last spring, the county awarded the theater a $250,000 grant to help it pay off its real estate and business taxes.

The loan negotiations have been ongoing for several years, the county said, and include Signature’s private lender, United Bank, forgiving $2.7 million of its $7.7 million loan.

“All of us at Signature are deeply grateful to our partners at United Bank and Arlington County for working with us to ensure that Signature can continue to thrive in Shirlington for many years to come,” Signature’s Managing Director Maggie Boland said in the release. “As the largest arts organization in Arlington, and Virginia’s largest theater, we are very pleased to cement this long-term partnership with the County.”

Signature, which won a Regional Theater Tony Award in 2009, is arguably the county’s most prominent arts organization. The theater is currently hosting the world premiere of the musical adaptation of Diner. It also conducts an education program for high school students called Signature in the Schools.

Janet Kopenhaver, chair of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, says the commission enthusiastically supports the county’s loan proposal.

“On behalf of the Arlington Commission for the Arts, I want to express our total support for this agreement with Signature Theatre — a critical asset to the County’s vibrant arts community,” Kopenhaver said. “We applaud the County for considering not only protecting a vital real estate investment in Shirlington, but also supporting our nationally-renowned, Tony-award winning theater company that we are so proud to have located in Arlington County.”

Photo via Signature Theatre

by Ethan Rothstein — December 11, 2014 at 11:45 am 1,547 0

County Manager Barbara Donnellan and Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Patrick Murphy, in a meeting with a few dozen residents last night, explained plans to handle the Arlington’s projected $28.4 million shortfall for next year.

“It will take cuts,” Donnellan said from a podium in Washington-Lee High School’s cafeteria. “It’s not an option. The Board may increase [spending] in some areas, but we’re going to have to cut.”

After presentations where each laid out the state of their administrations — Donnellan summarized the stagnant corporate real estate assessments, while Murphy laid out the school system’s exploding enrollment — residents broke into groups with staff members to discuss possibilities for budget improvements.

“I think there should be more sharing between the county and schools,” one resident said, telling a story about tree surveying around Thomas Jefferson Middle School. He said the county conducted a tree survey, and months later APS conducted one of its own. “There is too much duplicity and excess.”

Other resident questions and ideas posed in breakout groups, as taken down by county and APS staff, were:

  • Why not use budget reserves instead of cutting services?
  • Is APS looking into cutting from summer school or increasing class size?
  • Will the county close Artisphere?
  • Can the coordination between county permitting and APS improve for projecting student generation?

A topic that came up at multiple groups was Foreign Language in Elementary Schools, an initiative that has drawn community support and is offered in a majority of the county’s elementary schools. Multiple attendees suggested the program could be scaled back, while others, who supported its implementation, questioned the common sense of offering FLES while not allowing sixth-graders to take a language.

Donnellan and Murphy said they were gathering information before creating their proposed budgets, which will be presented to their respective boards in February.

“The residents give a lot of good insight into the tolerance for what they’re willing to live with and without,” Donnellan told ARLnow.com. “You get a lot of balance and they have a really good conversation.”

Murphy was less focused on cuts than the school system’s performance thus far and its growing needs. APS is projecting $8.7 million in this year’s budget for teacher pay step increases, and Murphy said the idea of a hiring freeze or cutting teacher pay is not a solution.

“D.C. is now offering $50,000 for an entry-level teacher,” he said. “They are stepping into the fray to make the market more competitive. We need to maintain that competitiveness.”

While many have called for more coordination between the governments, Donnellan and Murphy stressed that the two organizations work in tandem, not in opposition.

“It’s not schools vs. county,” Donnellan said after her presentation. “It’s one budget, it’s one community.”


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