The biggest challenge facing the burgeoning arts scene in Manassas and Prince William County might be convincing locals that it really exists.

Leaders in the local arts community, looking for ways to draw area residents to their productions, are frustrated as they watch them run off to the District for entertainment. They are eager to boost ticket sales and reduce their reliance on public funding.

"That's the biggest challenge," said Timothy Shaw, executive director of Vpstart Crow and the New Dominion Shakespeare Festival, the only professional theater company in the area. "A lot of people still can't comprehend that there's quality theater in their back yard."

Stella Olinger, Park Authority liaison to the Prince William County Arts Council--an umbrella organization for local arts groups, agrees.

"There are quality arts here that are very affordable . . . without the hassle, drive and cost," she said.

Part of the council's focus is to make area residents aware of the arts in the county and try to keep them here for entertainment.

The arts are growing, Olinger said. When she started working with the Arts Council in 1994, there were 14 organizations affiliated with the council. Today, there are 28.

So far, interest in Vpstart and other local arts has been on the upswing. When Vpstart Crow started its first season six years ago, ticket sales totaled about $2,000, Shaw said. This year, the company has box office receipts of about $35,000 to $40,000.

But he said those ticket sales alone aren't going to keep Vpstart afloat.

Vpstart Crow received a $4,500 grant this year from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. The theater group's entire budget for the year is $120,000, with its six shows costing about $25,000 each to produce. The bulk of Vpstart's funding comes from corporate sponsors, such as Dominion Semiconductor and Borders Books and Music, and from fund-raising and donations.

In all, the county provides $65,000 in grants to local arts. The Prince William Symphony Orchestra receives $25,000 from the county, and the other $40,000 is granted to various organizations, which go through an application process.

Sally Lay, executive director of the Center for the Arts Inc., a group that provides classes in the arts, said local arts in recent years have been "supported better by the community, by the Arts Council and the City of Manassas. . . . They're growing, marketing themselves better, attracting professional performers and musicians."

The Center for the Arts opened in 1984. The Pied Piper Children's Theatre is run through the Center for the Arts, where children perform for children. Before auditions, would-be actors take part in a "how to audition" class.

Lay said she sees more locals recognizing that they can stay in Prince William for culture. "As the arts in Prince William have grown and brought in more and more professional groups, the people that live here don't feel the need to go downtown to get the arts," she said.

One venue that may keep theatergoers in the county is the year-old Cramer Center. The 200-seat theater, owned by Steven Cramer, provides more arts groups with a place to perform in Old Town Manassas.

The center, formerly a church and then a cable TV studio, is booked into December 2000.

"When the arts organizations heard about it, they pretty much beat [Steven Cramer's] door down," Lay said.

That was before renovations started. Prince William Little Theatre will perform its entire season, which begins in February, at the center next year. The center, Lay said, is an example of "if you build it, they will come."

The Manassas Dance Company, a 20-year-old ballet troupe that started turning professional two years ago, has taken note of the expanded interest in the local arts.

"People are tired of driving to the Kennedy Center," said Amy Wolfe, dance company president and director. "It's expensive: The parking is expensive, the restaurants are expensive. We offer them the same quality in their own back yard."

Drawing locals to its back yard is the dance company's purpose and reason for existance, Wolfe said. But ticket sales alone are not enough to pay expenses of about $70,000.

Ticket sales last year brought in about $12,000. The company has a budget of approximately $70,000. Money for productions is raised through both state and local grants. The Virginia Commission for the Arts provided a little less than $3,000 this year, and Manassas gave $5,000--double the 1998 amount, Wolfe said.

Before the company started going professional two years ago, it performed only twice annually. Its season now consists of four series of performances, with a possibility of an additional summer performance next year.

The company performs "anywhere we can find space," Wolfe said. "Really what we need is a professional center here in Manassas."

The newest breakthrough in the county's arts business is the upcoming renovation and conversion of the Candy Factory in Old Town Manassas. When completed, the Candy Factory will have a theater-in-the-round and will hold classes.

"It will give Manassas one more foot in the door for being a cultural center," Lay said.

The state already has approved $100,000 for the Candy Factory and might approve another $100,000 in the fall. Manassas applied for $700,000 state grant in January, hoping to get half the cost of the $1.5 million cultural arts venue.