The grand opening tomorrow night of the American Film Institute complex marks the beginning of an expansion of arts and cultural facilities in downtown Silver Spring, leading many in government and the arts to predict Silver Spring eventually will become one of the area's most significant cultural centers.

An explosion of facilities for artists in both visual and performing arts is underway, sparked by the redevelopment of the commercial area that has attracted Discovery Communications and AFI.

In addition, a new state program has designated part of downtown as an arts and entertainment district, the first such designation in Montgomery County and one of only four in the state. The new district provides financial assistance and tax incentives to draw artists to the area.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) said he believes Silver Spring soon will rival Bethesda's image as an arts center.

"Arts was the missing link in Bethesda," said Duncan, a strong supporter of the arts. "They had the shops, they had the restaurants, they had the offices, but they didn't have the arts, which I have worked to bring to Bethesda. But that came at the end of the process. With Silver Spring, the arts have been in the mix from the very beginning. So while the retail and office development is still underway in Silver Spring, the arts are already getting up and running."

Duncan and others said a strong arts scene not only provides ambiance for an area but also attracts businesses and provides a vitality that keeps people coming back.

"The organizations that are coming into Silver Spring are really looking at the regional approach when it comes to attracting audiences," said Teresa Cameron, director of the Montgomery County Arts Council, who worked on the entertainment district legislation with state Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery). "That's really going to help the economy in downtown Silver Spring and make this area an entertainment destination point."

AFI's new 49,000-square-foot home, called the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, opens tomorrow night with a gala featuring actor-director Clint Eastwood, who will receive an award from the organization.

The complex houses two state-of-the-art, stadium-seating theaters in addition to encompassing the old Silver Theatre, an art moderne cinema house built in 1938 and saved from being demolished in a joint effort between AFI and Montgomery County, which spent about $20 million on the renovation..

AFI Silver, as the complex is informally called, also houses a cafe, a retail outlet, offices, meeting spaces and reception and exhibition areas.

In addition to being the home of the new SilverDocs international documentary film festival, the complex will serve as a focus for educational outreach programs in area schools.

Murray Horwitz, AFI Silver's theater director and chief operating officer, said the complex is one of the largest specialty film exhibitors in the United States.

"We're going to be offering the kind of films onscreen and programs with filmmakers onstage that Washington area audiences can't find anywhere else," he said. "It's going to quickly become a top cultural resource, not just for our region, but from all over the country and beyond."

Along with the Eastwood gala event, a series of invitation-only opening week festivities for supporters and financial contributors will continue before the facilities are opened to the public April 11.

The AFI Silver opening comes just three weeks after the new Round House Theatre 150-seat multipurpose facility presented its first theatrical performance.

"AFI and Round House will be the northern anchors of the arts and entertainment district, and they will both draw people to the area who wouldn't otherwise be coming here," said David Fogel, project manager of the Gateway Georgia Avenue Revitalization Corp., which specializes in forging public-private partnerships.

"On the southern end, when the Montgomery College cultural arts center is built, it will certainly be a destination point and a huge cultural amenity as well," he said.

Montgomery College is planning several major arts facilities, including a cultural arts building at Georgia Avenue and East West Highway that will include a 500-seat main stage theater and a smaller, 120-seat venue. Its opening is five to eight years away.

Closer to completion is the school's 180,000-square-foot facility in a former bakery off Georgia Avenue that will house the newly combined Fine Arts Department and Maryland College of Arts and Design, along with media rooms and art studio space. The building will be completed within 21/2 years.

Another major facility belongs to Pyramid Atlantic, an organization with an international reputation dedicated to artistic printmaking, papermaking and bookmaking. Its mission is to provide a setting where professional and student artists, as well as the general public, can learn and exchange ideas in an environment designed to encourage experimentation.

The organization is relocating from Riverdale Park in Prince George's County to 8230 Georgia Ave., where it spent $1.6 million for the building. The nonprofit group is raising an additional $2 million to renovate the structure to expand its educational programs for students from around the world and integrate art-related technology training. The new site will include a cafe, store and artist market, and the group hopes to add a new art gallery and a lecture hall.

Buildings designed for a variety of artistic uses, especially those that include living space designed for artists, many of whom use their homes as studios, form a major part of plans underway in the special arts district. Artist housing units, for example, might be designed with concrete floor space to accommodate painting and sculpture, along with extra large windows for natural light.

The Blair Mill Arts Center complex at 1100 Blair Mill Rd. near East West Highway is typical of that concept. It is home to the nightclub Izora, expected to open in several weeks, which will feature live jazz and stand-up comedy. Also in the building is Mayorga Coffee Roasters, which will offer gallery space along with hot beverages. Space for graphics artists and commercial photography studios also is planned in the building.

Meanwhile, the group Class Acts, which specializes in performing arts for children, has renovated an old depot on Georgia Avenue and will use the old waiting room for performance space, and the Montgomery Youth Works organization matches teens with artistic mentors. The students will be paid for creating original works of art.

In addition, the 15-story Gramax building, which sits near the District line and was used for 30 years by the federal government, will include a 4,500-square-foot community arts space as part of its renovation into a residential development. The project is in the arts and entertainment district.

Art is becoming so integrated into the planning that even the planned Civic Building on the Town Square at Fenton Street and Ellsworth Drive will have gallery space in it.

"The amount of money arts organizations generate, in terms of revenue that directly affects tax dollars and the economies of the community, far outweighs that of something as grand as a sports stadium, especially as the profits stay here and the organizations spend their income here," said Fogel, of the Gateway Georgia Avenue Revitalization Corp.

"Plus, every dollar spent on a ticket is accompanied by two dollars being spent elsewhere in the area."

The American Film Institute's new Silver Theatre and Cultural Center houses three theaters.Workers hang up a sign outside the American Film Institute's new Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, set to open with a gala tomorrow.