Glen Echo Park, nestled between MacArthur Boulevard and the Potomac River in Montgomery County, has been for years a mecca for dancers, actors, photographers, smiths, woodworkers, potters and sculptors.
But under a new plan to lease the national park to raise money for renovations, many of the 50 artists who offer classes to the public from their studios in Glen Echo's historic buildings may have to leave, according to park officials.
The National Park Service, which took over the park in 1971, is searching for a private or nonprofit organization to lease the park, in keeping with a program of leasing park property nationwide to private groups. The reason: historic Glen Echo needs a financial shot in the arm.
"Maybe all of the artists would have to leave," said Claudia Glagan, acting district ranger for the Maryland District of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which includes Glen Echo. "It depends on who is awarded the lease."
"We need a lot of money," Glagan added. "The buildings are in really bad shape." Millions of dollars are needed, she said, to rehabilitate the park's deteriorating buildings, including the well-known Spanish Ballroom, the stone Chautauqua Tower, the Cuddle Up Pavilion, the cavernous bumper car pavilion and the Art Deco-style arcade. Park Service officials said that each year about 250,000 visitors use Glen Echo, which was created as a retreat for cultural activities.
"With the budget restraints on us now, our intention is to either lease out or make some kind of arrangement whereby outsiders could come into the park," said Earle Kittleman, spokesman for the Park Service's National Capital Region Branch. Over 90 percent of the park's programs are already run by private groups. The action would primarily affect the park's buildings.
George Washington Parkway Superintendent John Bryne said the Park Service was exploring only whether any private groups could finance improvements at Glen Echo, while at the same time conform to an elaborate set of requirements for the preservation of historic buildings.
"If one doesn't meet our criteria, the federal government would continue to manage Glen Echo and seek tax dollars for that purpose," Bryne said.
Under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act, the $85 million regional parks budget was cut by about $4 million for fiscal 1987.
The national leasing program has been successful in many other park properties, Kittleman said. A bed-and-breakfast business now operates from a historic farmhouse in Antietam Battlefield National Park, he said, and a 17th century manor house in Prince George's County has been transformed into a horse and buggy carriage driving school.
"The historic leasing program is an attempt to take historic properties which aren't being used in the fullest sense and turn them over to private leaseholders who would maintain the properties, keep whatever is historical and cultural about them but would also have them to use for private purposes," said Kittleman.
Several organizations, including the Oliver Carr Co., a major Washington development company, and the Society for American Archeology, have expressed interest in the park, said Glagan. But a spokesman from the Carr Co. said the firm "hadn't thought about what kind of project it would have there."
Several of the artists and craftsmen, who offer 400 courses for the public each year, are concerned that an outside developer might want to change the flavor of the park, located a few miles from downtown Washington.
"If someone comes in and turns the place into condos, we're all out," said Jan Tievsky, who has worked at Glen Echo for 10 years, heading the park's dance program and artist association.
However, Tievsky added that the change would be beneficial to the artists if a private company came in and maintained the Glen Echo programs while renovating the historic buildings.
"It could either be the absolutely worst thing that could possibly happen or the absolutely best thing," Tievsky said.