On the eve of the grand opening of the new BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown, the arts facility has just enough money to cover the operating costs for its debut season and needs the county to help make payments on a $3.5 million construction loan.
BlackRock general manager Marilyn Balcombe and other employees recently met with officials to discuss whether the county could assume loan payments or give direct subsidy for the construction loan, used to help build the $10 million center, when the first loan payment comes due in August.
Balcombe said she realized the timing of the revelation about her organization's financial difficulties could not have come at a worse time, as BlackRock prepares for its official unveiling Saturday, with a ribbon-cutting, musical revue and a cocktail reception in the new center's soaring glass atrium.
"We're not in imminent danger of closing our doors," Balcombe said. "We're still hopeful we'll get private contributions."
Like many other Montgomery County arts organizations that began ambitious building projects during the booming 1990s, BlackRock is coping with corporate donations that are far less than expected.
To date, the new arts center has raised $500,000 from corporate donors, but needs $3 million more to pay off the loan. Then it will have to begin fundraising for an operations endowment.
County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), a strong advocate of the arts, said that the county will help obtain the necessary funding, even though it is facing a $300 million budget shortfall and severe cutbacks for the coming year.
"We're going to make sure they stay open," Duncan said. "We're going to help them as best we can on capital side and keep them focused on doing the programming."
BlackRock, which is run by a private, nonprofit group, is the first major arts center in the burgeoning upcounty area, with an art gallery, three classrooms for art education, a dance studio, a conference room, a multipurpose theater, an proscenium theater and an outdoor stage. Officials hope it will become an important anchor and gathering spot in downtown Germantown, where it sits next to the site for the planned new town library.
Competition among local arts groups for public money for the coming year will be fierce, officials said. Theresa A. Cameron, executive director of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, said that her organization would ask county to increase its contribution toward operating costs of local theater groups to provide extra start-up money to those expanding and building new facilities.
Since 1999, eight theaters and arts groups have launched ambitious building and expansion plans, including BlackRock and a new $89 million concert hall at Strathmore Hall Arts Center in Bethesda.
To accomplish their goals, the groups needed to raise a combined $60 million, an amount unheard of in Montgomery, where corporate giving lags well below the national average. Across the country, corporate giving fell an estimated 12.1 percent in 2001, according to a report complied by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Many groups have had to scale back or cancel plans. BlackRock already has cut back, opening with half the staff and less programming than originally planned.
Duncan said he believes the setbacks are temporary and that the county may need to provide only short-term help until the economy recovers.
"We've got facilities opening up that need to stay open because they are providing valuable service to upcounty area," Duncan said. "With the hit the economy's taken, companies don't have the money now to donate as they did a few years ago. That's what no one counted on."