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Supporters Continue Push To Reopen Auditorium

Old Blair High Space Seen as Untapped Asset

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page GZ03

Two young sisters danced an Irish jig, and a woman who attended Blair High School in the 1970s played a flute. Then, the 40 supporters of renovating and reopening the auditorium at the building that formerly housed Blair High School launched into song to lobby legislative committees Saturday in Annapolis to support a $1 million bond bill for the project.

The effort to reopen the 1,200-seat auditorium for use by local arts groups has won support from County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who has included $190,000 in his fiscal year 2006 budget for the renovation. Supporters have raised $50,000 during four months of fundraising.

About $1.5 million to $2 million is required to renovate the auditorium, which was closed when the former Blair High School building became Sligo Creek Elementary School and Silver Spring International Middle School in 1999. Tight school budgets and a school system policy that says middle schools can't have auditoriums meant that the performance space had to be shut down.

If the General Assembly approves funds for the project, the remainder of the financing must be raised through a combination of private and public sources.

Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery), who sponsored her chamber's version of the bill, said that reopening the auditorium would turn the unused, deteriorating space into a community asset.

"Anytime you bring people into a place where they pay for their performances, the revenue is there, and the income is there," she said. "In addition to that, you provide a place for young artists to be found."

Montgomery Dels. Sheila E. Hixson (D), Peter Franchot (D) and Gareth E. Murray (D) have sponsored the House version of the bill

In 1999, the General Assembly approved a $500,000 bond bill for the auditorium renovation, with the provision that the funds be matched by the county. But the project eventually lost the state funds because the money couldn't be matched by county or private sources.

Busy Graham, president of the nonprofit Old Blair Auditorium Project, said that this time there is enough momentum and community support to raise the money.

Because of downtown Silver Spring, which is a state-designated arts and entertainment district, and the Music Center at Strathmore, more people are aware of the importance of the arts, Graham said. She said many community groups, including the Culkin School of Traditional Dance, where the girls who performed the jig at the General Assembly were from, have trouble finding adequate space to hold their performances.

"We already know there's enough interest in renting that facility to basically fill it 365 days a year," said Graham, who is a founder of Class Acts Arts Inc., a Silver Spring-based nonprofit organization that promotes arts education.

Graham said auditorium supporters plan to begin a fundraising initiative this spring if the state approves the bond package. She said that a recent 24-hour event held after an anonymous donor issued a challenge to match his $5,000 contribution raised $6,400.

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