If most artists are dreamers, local artists soon could have a new venue in which to bring their dreams to life.
The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to decide this week whether to add a $1.4 million bond proposal to the Nov. 2 ballot for the Franklin Park Performing and Visual Arts Center in Purcellville. If the supervisors -- and then the voters -- approve the proposal, the long-unfinished center could open its doors by the end of 2005.
The building has been under construction since the two original barns at Franklin Park burned in 1997, leaving only a clay tile silo and one foundation wall standing. After the fire, volunteers who had hoped to convert the 19th-century barns into a simple theater space suddenly looked at the project in a new light, according to Jeffrey Stern, manager of the center.
"Everyone kind of said, 'Let's make it a fully blown arts center,' " Stern said,
On the old foundation, a 6,700-square-foot barn was built almost entirely by volunteers to preside over the green slopes of Franklin Park. But inside, tiered floors await the installation of 300 seats and a stage. When completed, the theater will include space for art exhibits and a stage underlaid with cork as a comfort to dancers. The space will allow for "almost any kind of performance you can think of," said Stern, who runs the educational and artistic programs based at the park.
The center will become Loudoun's first combined artistic venue not attached to an educational institution. Local schools and universities often share their auditoriums with arts groups, Stern said, but understandably put their scheduling needs first.
Supervisor Jim G. Burton (I-Blue Ridge) said he supported the bond proposal and expected that the measure would pass the board. "It would be a tremendous benefit to the community," he said. "Many performers and performances have had to scrounge around for places to practice, and finally I hope we'll be able to give them a permanent home."
But in a tax-conscious county, some residents are concerned about adding to Loudoun's debt. "When they pile project upon project, especially when they're not necessities, we're going to get ourselves in trouble," said Pat Grigsby, a Hillsboro resident who would reserve bond issues for such basic services as schools and public safety.
The bond would primarily pay for finishing the systems needed to make the barn legal for occupancy, such as electricity, ventilation, carpeting, lighting and fire suppression -- items beyond the expertise of most volunteers.
To get this far, volunteers have worked with nearly $2 million in grants and in-kind donations. Loudoun County contributed more than $225,000 from insurance proceeds and again as much in new appropriations.
In 1998, the timber frame was raised, and two years later, more than 2,000 solar panels were installed to provide "green" power. Both milestones were achieved with unpaid "sweat equity," Stern said.
After several years, however, the project stalled as tight budgets and rising construction costs took their toll. "It was probably a more ambitious project than anybody realized," said Barbara Sample, who coordinates more than 100 active Franklin Park volunteers, about half of whom donate their time to the barn. Sample also teaches classes in art history and crafts and is especially looking forward to the center's exhibit area.
"It's going to be a new space with high ceilings and the right atmosphere," she said.
Stern said he envisions even more improvements than the bond would cover -- converting the top of the silo into an observatory with a telescope and a wrap-around deck with French doors facing Franklin Park's pond. The goal is to create a performing arts center that is distinctive to Loudoun, he said.
"We don't want to do just arts, but arts that tell you something about where we live," Stern said.
In addition, the center will offer seating for disabled patrons throughout the theater, not only in the back, along with services to help hearing- and sight-impaired audience members. The stage will be level with the dressing rooms for wheelchair accessibility.
"We'll have a unique situation for the elderly and disabled people to come and have a really good theater experience, along with those on stage," said Alice Power, director of VSA arts -- formerly Very Special Arts -- in Loudoun County.
Rhonda Walker of Purcellville, the vice president of the Friends of Franklin Park and a longtime volunteer, has organized grade-school field trips to the barn.
"Someday they might perform on that stage," Walker said, adding that she hoped her own children would be able to take advantage of the new facility. "It touches so many segments of the community. An 8-year-old can go in and use it, and an 80-year-old can, too."