But today, the most distinctive hue at the Workhouse Arts Center is red ink. Awash in $53.7 million of county-endorsed debt, the foundation responsible for renovating the complex and running the arts center is now fighting for survival. County taxpayers are paying more of its bills, to the tune of nearly $3 million a year.
Some foundation and county officials say the nonprofit Lorton Arts Foundation ran into trouble when the economy crashed, but still think that the venue has great promise. The arts center might not have been savvy at marketing itself and sometimes sponsored events that were fun but unprofitable, but its prospects have already begun to change with new leadership, they say.
Others worry that the arts center was always a shaky bet in a remote part of the county and that years of rosy projections, naive management of a complex renovation and lax county oversight have created a money pit. Even those who have faith in the venue’s future say troubles occurred because the foundation’s early leadership had a grandiose plan that relied too heavily on borrowing.
“They had these lofty goals of creating a self-sustaining arts colony,” said Scott Habes, director of the visual arts program. “A foundation is usually built on money. This was built on debt.”
The county’s Board of Supervisors this year acknowledged that the foundation was on the brink of failure. But John Mason, president of the Lorton Arts Foundation, said he is confident that the arts center can succeed with a new business model and restructured debt.
“We need to think of entrepreneurial options,” Mason said.
In the 1990s, former congressman Thomas M. Davis III, who was then Board of Supervisors chairman, helped transfer the federal property’s approximately 2,300 acres to the county for about $4.2 million. The Fairfax County Park Authority took over most of the land, and there is now a golf course, a high school and private homes. The Lorton Arts Foundation leased the 55-acre workhouse site on Ox Road and set to work preserving and reinventing the complex. County officials joined the foundation in celebrating the Workhouse Arts Center’s opening in 2008.
“How many places in the country do you have a prison that’s been turned into exactly the opposite, an arts center?” said Roger A. Lancaster, a Falls Church resident snapping pictures on a recent visit. “Yes, it’s expensive, but it adds to the quality of life.”