Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2008

Study could help case for future of Blair auditorium

Funding would explore feasibility of plan for renovation of former high school’s performance space

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Charles E. Shoemaker
oldblairS010907_B Charles E. Shoemaker/The Gazette 01/05/07 **Update on fundraising of Old Blair Auditorium Project. In 2005, the project was approved for $600,000 in state bond bill funding. Now they need to come up with a matching grant to create a mixed-use facility out of the old auditorium, which hasnŐt been used for years**
The fundraising campaign to reopen the former Montgomery Blair High School auditorium as a community arts space received a boost recently with a promise from the county public schools to fund a feasibility study for the renovation.

The study, estimated to cost between $25,000 and $30,000 and included in the schools’ recommended budget for fiscal 2009, will kick off a renewed lobbying effort as the project’s organizers seek ways to match a $600,000 state bond bill designated for the project.

The deadline to match the state funding, which was allocated in April 2005, was extended an additional two years earlier last year to give the project’s leaders more time to lobby the county and collect private donations.

So far, the organization has raised more than $60,000 through a ‘‘grassroots effort to keep the project going,” said Stuart Moore, president of the Old Blair Auditorium Project Inc., the nonprofit heading the renovation effort since 2004.

‘‘The project’s not a horribly complicated project. It’s been more of a politically involved project,” he said.

The County Council appropriated $190,000 in 2005 for the project, $50,000 of which was used by the county’s Department of Public Works and Transportation to fund a study detailing cost estimates. At that time, the project was estimated to cost between $3.2 million and $3.8 million.

According to the project’s business plan, expenses for the first fully operational year would require another $325,000. Since that study, the DPWT has been replaced by the county’s public school system as the lead agency on the project, Moore said.

‘‘It is a school building, so it makes sense that MCPS would be the lead entity,” he said.

The remaining $140,000 in County Council funding is still allocated toward the project, but not tied to any particular phase and contingent also on the organization’s fundraising capability, Moore said.

The County Council will consider releasing the $140,000 to go toward construction costs after the county schools’ study is complete; the county, MCPS and the Old Blair Auditorium Project come up with a detailed plan about the management and operation of the project; and the nonprofit raises the remaining $410,000 required to match state funding, according to the county’s current Capital Improvements Program budget.

County Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring said the county public school system’s decision to include funding to pay for a study will determine how best to renovate the auditorium into a multi-use space.

‘‘The fact of the matter is, we needed the county’s buy-in on what should be done with that building,” Ervin said. ‘‘Now the vision is, let’s make this an after-school space. ... I think we’re getting somewhere.”

The auditorium, located at the former Blair campus on Wayne Avenue, has been closed since 1999, when Blair moved to its new location at Colesville Road and University Boulevard. The auditorium is now part of the Silver Spring International Middle School and Sligo Creek Elementary School campuses.

For nearly 30 years, the space was used to host school assemblies, plays, fundraising events and professional music, theater and dance shows. Today, it is open only for tours once a month.

‘‘It’s to show people what it looks like today, and talk about the potential for the auditorium in the future,” David Ottalini, PTSA co-president at Blair, said of the tours. ‘‘It’s got a lot of potential.”

Moore said the next step is getting the MCPS study started once funding is available in July, after which the nonprofit can again approach the county and state about whether the project is eligible for any additional funding in the next several budget cycles.

‘‘The project itself could happen very fast if all the money was in place,” Moore said. ‘‘We have a whole new set of lobbying to do now.”