George Mason University President Alan G. Merten says that he and others are aggressively pursuing private donations for the planned $56 million performing arts center in Manassas so that it might open as early as 2008 instead of late 2009 or 2010, as previously announced.

The next three to four months of fundraising are crucial, Merten said, adding that it is possible that in three years, the arts center -- which is modeled after the La Scala opera house in Milan -- could be completed.

Merten talked about the early opening when he gave the Prince William Board of County Supervisors an overview of the university's current operations and plans for 2010 during a board meeting Tuesday.

Last year's announcement of the proposed performing arts center helped boost Prince William's profile as a more upscale county, one that is becoming as culturally aware as its Northern Virginia neighbors. The county would pay 60 percent of the $36 million of construction and design costs, George Mason would pay 30 percent, and the City of Manassas would pay 10 percent.

But construction and design of the 1,100-seat arts center are only the beginning, Merten said in an interview.

"We're not only raising money for the building. We're raising money for the endowment for maintenance," he said. "Performing arts centers do not generate money."

An initial $15 million endowment from private donors would help ensure the center's fiscal success, Merten said.

While Merten fretted over making sure that the proposed arts center would be fiscally sound after it is built, he told supervisors that the Patriot Center, the arts facility on GMU's Fairfax campus, has been thriving, with 375,000 visitors annually.

He jokingly told supervisors that they missed the chance to see rapper Snoop Dogg perform there. "There are a lot things that go on at the Patriot Center that I don't understand, but we do well financially there," Merten said.

But more people visit the Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center at the Prince William campus than all the other facilities, he said. The center has 600,000 visitors annually.

Although Merten highlighted the school's non-academic facilities, the bulk of his presentation was about the university's growing faculty and enrollment, spurred by new professors and programs.

From 2000 to 2004, the student population increased by 6,000. Nearly 29,000 graduate and undergraduate students were enrolled in the fall at GMU's campuses in Fairfax City, Prince William and Arlington County. During that same period, the number of applicants for 2,500 openings each year jumped from 5,700 to 11,000, according to Merten's report.

The university estimates that more than 31,000 students will be enrolled by 2010.

"This is slow growth," Merten said. "To be honest with you, it's too slow. . . . We just have to slow down growth until we get state support to allow us to grow on all of our campuses."

Supervisor John H. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) said he wanted to know how many students come from Prince William, Manassas and Manassas Park. Merten said he was not sure, and a member of his staff offered to pull Zip code information of students to give Jenkins an answer.

Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles), a GMU graduate, said he is amazed at how the university has progressed in recent years. He said it is now a "premier school" instead of "a small school in Fairfax with a pipe dream in Price William County."

"The best is still yet to come," Merten told supervisors.

GMU PRESIDENT ALAN G. MERTEN George Mason University's planned $56 million performing arts center is modeled after Milan's La Scala opera house.