When the federal government turned the old Lorton prison over to Fairfax County three years ago, a group of artists began dreaming of transforming some of the historic buildings into an arts center.

They formed the nonprofit Lorton Arts Foundation and dubbed the complex they envisioned the Lorton Workhouse Arts Center, a nod to the D.C. correctional facility's past as a work farm for miscreants.

Lorton closed as a prison in 2001, and Fairfax bought the 2,440-acre complex from the federal government for $4.2 million the next year.

The foundation's plans took shape to transform more than 20 aging buildings into artists' studios, a performance barn for concerts, classrooms for music and art students, a theater, a prison museum and restaurants.

The Board of Supervisors approved a 99-year lease of 56 acres to the foundation for $1 a year. The arts group said the project would aim to be self-sustaining by 2006.

Now the finances of the deal are complicating its prospects.

The foundation needs to raise $27.5 million toward the first phase of construction. Financial advisers have told the group that with no fundraising track record, it needs the county to back bonds it hopes to sell. The group also says it needs $1 million a year from the county, for at least five years, to cover maintenance costs.

When Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), whose district includes Lorton, brought those requests before county supervisors last week, they balked.

"We're being asked to give money to an entity whose viability needs serious examination," Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said at Monday's board meeting. Connolly and his colleagues seemed surprised at the foundation's request for public funds.

At Hyland's request, the board agreed to put $500,000 toward the maintenance request on its year-end spending list. But it added a proviso that it receive a detailed report on the foundation's finances as it considers maintenance funding and whether to back the bonds.

The foundation says it is the county's obligation to maintain buildings on the prison site.

"We're asking the county to fulfill an obligation it already has to keep its historic structures to a certain standard," Executive Director Tina Leone said.

"We're doing this for the residents of Fairfax County," she said. "If the supervisors feel they don't want to support their buildings in that way, we'll have to reevaluate."

-- Lisa Rein

An arts foundation hoping to create a cultural center on the grounds of the old Lorton prison says it needs a five-year commitment by Fairfax to cover maintenance costs.