Panels of floor-to-ceiling glass would give the lobby a light, airy feel. A four-story, 1,100-seat performance hall would echo the style of classic European opera houses.

It's all part of a preliminary design for George Mason University's proposed Manassas performing arts center, which university and local officials hope one day will transform Prince William County's arts scene and draw visitors from across the region.

"Rather than building another auditorium, we wanted this to be more intimate," Bill Reeder, dean of George Mason's College of Visual and Performing Arts, said in a presentation before the Manassas City Council earlier this week. The $55 million performance hall would be built vertically, with a U-shape audience seating area.

"The way it's designed, everybody will feel like they're in the front row," said City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes, comparing it to the famous Teatro alla Scala opera house in Milan.

The hall's 21st-century efficiency and technology, including modern acoustics and electronics, would be offset by a 19th-century intimacy, officials said.

"In terms of the finish, it will look beautiful but will not be made with the very, very expensive materials," said Lawrence D. Czarda, vice president for George Mason's Prince William campus.

In addition to the lobby and performance hall, the 99,000-square-foot center would include a two-story rehearsal and performance space, dressing rooms, two practice studios and scenery, wardrobe and paint shops.

On Monday night, Reeder and other top university officials presented the $900,000 preliminary design to City Council members. Manassas contributed $200,000, Prince William $450,000 and George Mason $250,000 to the preliminary designs, which were completed last week. The design work was budgeted separately from the $55 million total for the center.

"We felt it was important to give them an update," Czarda said. "Part of the timing is because the drawings [were] done but also because this group has been a very strong partner and we owed them a report. We will do the same" for the Prince William Board of County Supervisors.

University officials said they hope to complete the center by fall 2009, a timetable Czarda called ambitious. Officials hope to start construction around summer 2007, said Brian H. Marcus, associate dean of development for the arts at George Mason.

The center would be just north of University Boulevard at the planned main entrance of the campus in Manassas. A student union building would one day sit across from the center.

The next step, university officials said, is to hammer out an official agreement among the project's three proposed partners, Manassas, Prince William and GMU. The agreement, to be completed by late summer, would include a timeline and a funding plan.

H. Randall Edwards, former George Mason executive vice president, told City Council members that Manassas Park might join the partnership.

In the fall, officials will formally kick off a $15 million fundraising drive. A new committee -- chaired by former Manassas mayor Marvin L. Gillum (R) and former Board of County Supervisors chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D) -- will head up the effort. The $15 million endowment will support the annual operating costs for the center, because ticket sales on their own aren't enough.

"No center of this size can break even because it just doesn't have enough seats for big attractions," Marcus said. "All of the centers of this size have to raise money to close that gap."

Virginia has authorized George Mason to issue bonds to build the center. The construction and design will cost $36 million.

Of that, "the current estimate is that the county would pay 60 percent, Manassas 10 percent and George Mason 30 percent," Hughes said. The city's share would amount to about $259,200 annually.

GMU will donate the land for the center, valued at $3 million, as well as the $1 million cost of construction management and fundraising support.

Reeder said the fundamental purpose of the center is to support community arts groups, including symphony, ballet and public and university student groups.

Manassas Dance Company and the Prince William Symphony Orchestra, neither of which has had a permanent home, are expected to make the new center their headquarters, said Sally Lay, executive director of Manassas's Center for the Arts. Doing so will help the groups build their audiences.

"Manassas and Prince William County are already becoming known as havens for the arts," Lay said. "And with this new center, it's just going to make it even more so."