Round House Theatre draws fire in Silver Spring
Council members say theatre appears to be getting special treatment
County Council members have blasted the county executive branch over plans for the Round House Theatre to occupy offices in the Silver Spring Civic Building without paying rent, despite the performance group charging other nonprofit organizations to use its space.
"There has been concern expressed that public space is being made available on an exclusive basis to one highly favored nonprofit and there's a lot of demand for public space," said Councilman George Leventhal (D-At large), during a June 22 joint work session between the council's Planning, Housing and Economic Development and Health and Human Services committees.
As part of an agreement with former County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, the county offered Round House theater space in Bethesda and Silver Spring without having to pay rent or utilities. In exchange, Round House would provide arts and entertainment services to a redeveloping Silver Spring. Round House moved into its Wayne Avenue education center and Colesville Road theater in 2004.
Part of that deal reserved office space for Round House in the civic building, whenever it would be built. County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is abiding by that deal and the county is currently drafting a lease agreement with Round House, said Diane Schwartz Jones, the county's assistant chief administrative officer.
"While we may want to achieve parity and equality between our nonprofits, the reality is we have different policy objectives at different times, and certain nonprofits will fulfill certain needs at certain times," Jones said. "For Round House, at the time when the commitment was made, there were needs, objectives and strategies being pursued."
According to Round House statistics submitted to the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, in fiscal year 2009, the county space that Round House occupied was worth about $1.5 million in rent.
Twenty-two Round House employees will move to the civic building where Round House will occupy a disputed percent of the building. Proponents of the theater moving to the building say Round House will occupy only 14 percent of the building's 44,000 square feet of usable space. Opponents to the deal say it's 25 percent of the building's gross space.
At any rate, council members called the space "a gift" and urged the executive branch to reevaluate how it leases space to the organization and others. It is unfair that Round House charges other nonprofit groups to use its Colesville Road theater despite not paying rent on that space itself, they said.
"All these community users bring value very comparable to what Round House brings, but we haven't monetized that in fact the opposite, we are charging them," Leventhal said. "Round House is highly favored, and other groups aren't as favored. That's a fact, you can't deny it."
The only justification for Round House being given the civic building space is "people [were] scared [when] they were building this building there would be no one to put in it," said Laura Steinberg, the incoming chairwoman for IMPACT Silver Spring, a local nonprofit.
Steinberg and more than 50 others signed a letter sent to Leggett that lauded Round House for its arts contributions but referred to it as "by-and-large a rental house, with other nonprofit community and arts groups paying significant amounts for its use."
Meanwhile, supporters of the plan to provide space to Round House in the civic building are also collecting signatures on a letter that is slated to be sent today to Leggett and the County Council.
"[Round House] has played a vital role in the re-vitalization of downtown Silver Spring, and we welcome its inclusion as a cultural anchor in the new Civic Building,'' reads the letter, which was distributed to the Woodside Park neighbors by Round House advisory board member Laura Forman.
In its Colesville Road "black box" theater, Round House has a 52-week lease with Frontline Silver Spring, a church group for young adults that holds weekly services at Round House.
Jones said the county had recently been made aware of Round House's lease with Frontline, which began holding services at Round House in May 2009.
"I don't think the lease was intended to set up a cottage industry," Jones said.
Round House's lease states that the use of its Silver Spring theater is limited to "the exhibition, transmission, and production of live theater, music productions and other performing arts."
"Our primary commitment is to performing arts but, frankly, there are times when arts organizations aren't interested, so to fill out space we look for other partners," Sally Patterson, a member of Round House's board of trustees, said after the hearing.
The council has no authority over the terms of the county's agreement with Round House, but the meeting evolved into a reexamination of how the county makes available public space.
Council members suggested that nonprofits that have not been granted county space are forced to either subsidize the operations of those that do or not rent space.
"We build a community space, and then we see there's all these costs to it, so we set high fees where the community can't use it, and then we drive to lease to someone with a lot of money to cover the costs," said Councilman Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park. "I feel like we are chasing our tail."
And that dynamic could continue at the civic building, where rental fees for nonprofit groups are too high, said Darian Unger, chairman of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board. It will cost $200 for a nonprofit to rent the civic building's full great hall between Monday and Thursday nights.
Councilwoman Nancy Floreen suggested the county form a task force group to examine and monitor how it leases public use space. Councilwoman Nancy Navarro suggested that in a growing area like Silver Spring, 10-year-old deals made by former officials are no longer relevant.
"What bothers me is the sense that because we have been made a commitment by a previous County Executive that we aren't going to then try and shift a policy situation with the reality on the ground," said Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring. "That's a very important point. At some point five to 10 years ago we didn't think these vibrant nonprofits would be so vibrant."