Fairfax will assume $30 million in debt owed by arts center at the old Lorton prison


Artist Lynn Goldstein works on a painting in her studio at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Va. Artists fill nearly 70 studios, honing their skills at painting, glass-blowing and firing ceramics. The center is experiencing financial problems. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has agreed to assume $30 million of debt owed by the Lorton Arts Foundation, the nonprofit group that has struggled to run the former Lorton prison as an artist colony since it was launched in 2008.

As part of an agreement reached with Wells Fargo bank, the county avoided what officials said would have been an embarrassing foreclosure on the Workhouse Arts Center, which opened amid high hopes and fanfare. A $60 million loan was shaved in half, with the county agreeing to assume responsibility of the rest of the debt and take control of the center.

The current Lorton Arts Foundation board will be abolished and replaced with a new board, county officials said.

“The fact is, if this deal was not made today, the bank was going to foreclose on that loan this month,” Supervisor John C. Cook (R-Braddock) said before the board’s 9 to 1 vote late Tuesday. “Had this loan gone into default there would have been litigation, and the county would have been drawn into that litigation.”

After the foundation renovated the century-old prison, which had become a symbolic eyesore for the Lorton community, the arts center at which Mikhail Baryshnikov once danced at a black-tie gala was immersed at its start in poor management. In addition, the nonprofit had problems raising donations that were exacerbated by the 2008 recession.

After the first phase of the renovation was completed, plans for artists’ residences, restaurants, a museum, a music barn and a performing arts center on the 56-acre site never materialized.

Even so, the remote center served as somewhat of a cultural magnet in the county’s southern section, with film festivals, holiday performances and lessons in cooking and Pilates.

“I have personally attended many successful workshops, fundraisers and events at the Workhouse, most notably Fairfax County’s annual SpringFest, an event that drew thousands of people in celebration of Earth Day/Arbor Day,” board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said in a statement.

But the financially strapped center remained a lingering headache for the county, which over the years agreed to help with the foundation debt and to make other improvements to the land — to a total of $16 million, county officials said.

Before voting, the supervisors took turns heaping criticism on the arts foundation for what they said were overly ambitious plans that were poorly executed. But most agreed that a complete failure now would be adeeper embarrassment.

“The worst thing we can do at this point in time is let the Lorton arts center fall down after we invested $16 million in it,” said Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee.) “The worst we can do is Band-Aid the Lorton arts center as they hobble through another year.”

Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) was the lone dissenting vote on the board, saying the deal amounted to bailing out Wells Fargo after it made a bad loan.

“This isn’t about Lorton Arts, or the arts in general,” Herrity said. “This is about spending $30 million of taxpayers’ money to pay off a debt that we have no legal obligation to pay. Instead we should be monetizing the surrounding land to help ensure the long-term success of Lorton Arts, as I have been proposing for over a year.”

Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) agreed that more needs to be done to make the center a success and suggested that more headaches could lie ahead.

“Where we are now, probably none of us really want to be here,” Frey said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We never wanted to be in the business of running an arts center. We’ve got a lot of work to do to try to get it right. We have several years of continued economic uncertainty where we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Antonio covers government, politics and other regional issues in Fairfax County. He worked in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago before joining the Post in September of 2013.
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