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Hearing Addresses Kennedy Center Criticisms

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; 3:51 PM

Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, told a congressional panel this morning that the fire safety plan for the center, which has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office as inadequate, protects the visitors and the building.

"I believe the building is safe or I would shut it down," said Kaiser at a hearing called by the House appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the center's public funds. The subcommittee also heard from Mark Goldstein, the GAO director of physical infrastructure issues.

In a highly critical report, officially released this morning, the GAO said the center had made a mistake by not installing sprinklers and smoke detection systems in its three main public halls. The study also said that in its three main renovation and construction projects, completed before 2003, the center had exceeded its estimated budget by as much as 50 percent.

On the issue of public safety, the report drew particular attention to the Millennium Stages, where some nights thousands of people gather to hear a free concert.

"The stages located at the ends of the Grand Foyer could pose exit problems in the event of fire. Furthermore, the Millennium Stages do not have sprinkler and smoke control systems as required by fire code," said Goldstein. Afterward, Goldstein said the center is only subject to reviews by the city's fire inspectors when the president is visiting the building.

In response Kaiser said the stages have three means of exiting and the ushers were all trained in public safety.

The hearing did not clarify whether the Kennedy Center was right or wrong on its approaches to fire safety. Kaiser agreed to bring in a third-party, a division of the Smithsonian Institution, to mediate the different views of the center and the GAO.

Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.) said he took a tour of the center on Tuesday and was satisfied. "The Kennedy Center has taken its responsibility for public safety very seriously," said Dicks.

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