Board Revisits Fizzled 'Dream' Of Arts Center

At the Fairfax County Government Center, the potential site of a new arts center, county officials and others walk Monday to a memorial grove marking the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
At the Fairfax County Government Center, the potential site of a new arts center, county officials and others walk Monday to a memorial grove marking the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Back when Fairfax supervisors designed a new county government center in 1987, they dreamed of a concert hall on the lawn behind it to rival that in any growing big city.

But by the time the massive center opened in 1992, with its soaring atrium lobby and marble and mahogany paneling, the building's cost had swelled to $100 million, and the concert hall was axed. Fourteen years later, an arts center is back on the table.

The Board of Supervisors allocated $150,000 Monday to study where, how and for how much money the county could build an outdoor amphitheater on the 50 grassy acres known as the ellipse.

"I hope this will materialize, after all these years," said Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), whose district includes the Government Center. "We had a dream. It never happened."

McConnell recalled how she and late supervisor Martha V. Pennino, a Democrat who championed the building, envisioned an indoor performing arts space behind it. They pushed for the land once they realized the concert hall might take a while. With the cost of an indoor space prohibitive, McConnell said she would welcome an outdoor performance space somewhere between a bandstand and a professional-quality stage.

It would not be Fairfax's first performance center. George Mason University, the Reston and McLean community centers and several county parks attract thousands to concerts every year. But county leaders said the investment would be worthwhile in Washington's largest suburb, which has 1.1 million people to draw from for performing arts events.

"There's a big difference between people who go to an event in Burke versus an event in Reston," said Barry Feil, director of Celebrate Fairfax, a nonprofit group that sponsors the county fair each June and a fall festival for young people, both in the Government Center parking lot. "The average person doesn't necessarily realize that Mount Vernon, Great Falls and Reston are in the same county."

Feil said he would welcome a permanent home for his performers.

Parking is unlikely to be a problem at the Government Center. The 2,893 spaces in the garage and massive lot out front are rarely filled, nor is the ellipse, with its wide-open space, lack of trees and deep slope to a storm water retention pond at the perimeter.

On Monday, a bagpipe player led the supervisors down a trail to the memorial grove that the county built to commemorate the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There is no road from the front of the building, but that could change with a performance center.

"Having some sort of stage back there would really serve our citizens," said Pete Murphy, the county Planning Commission member who represents Springfield. He envisions a stage for high school and college graduations and other events that aren't strictly for the arts.

How an amphitheater would be paid for is up in the air. McConnell said she hopes the county would contribute as well as the corporations that do business in Fairfax. For now, the county has committed only to a study of what's feasible.

George Mason spokesman Dan Walsch said the university would welcome another venue. "We're highly encouraging of anything that makes the arts part of the county's daily landscape," he said. "The more the merrier."

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