Council Unanimously Supports Performing Arts Auditorium

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OCEAN CITY – Hours after a group of citizens toured the Roland E. Powell Convention Center to view current construction and future designs, the Mayor and Council approved a performing arts auditorium for the next phase of expansion.

In August of 2010, the Mayor and City Council approved phase one of the convention center remodeling. Currently, the convention center is under construction expanding the ballroom and Exhibit Hall D. The 32,000-square-foot expansion is estimated to be completed by fall of next year at a cost of $9.3 million. The town has contributed $5 million, and the Maryland Stadium Authority (MSA) contributed $4.3 million.

To date, the project is on time and on budget. The estimated new tax revenue to the state is $1.1 million to $1.6 million on an annual basis.

City Engineer Terry McGean presented the Mayor and City Council with three goals to be approved in moving forward with phase two of construction at the convention center, which includes a performing arts auditorium that would seat 1,200 people.

The first goal is to continue the MSA partnership with the convention center. Currently, the MSA pays 50% of the operating deficit, which is about $1.5 million a year. The partnership is scheduled to end by the time MSA pays off its part of the expansion by 2014. Therefore, McGean requested an extension of the partnership with MSA including the operating deficit share through 2034, or the period for the auditorium bonds to be paid off.

The second goal is to keep in place the funding mechanism for future capital projects through the food tax revenue. McGean requested to change food tax legislation to limit the total outstanding, instead of maximum, principal amount of the bonds issued to be $20 million. This will allow for food tax to continue to be collected and used for improvements, additions, repairs to the building as bonds are paid off.

The final goal McGean presented was to proceed with phase two of the auditorium. If the partnership with MSA is extended and food tax change is approved, the city share of the auditorium can be funded with no additional revenue and food tax at the current half percent, and based on an economic study done by MSA officials, they are proposing their share be 25% of construction cost for the auditorium and 50% of operating deficit for the full building.

In meeting the needs of the convention center’s clients and future clients, Convention Center Director Rick Hamilton said the auditorium will have to include a fixed-tiered seating, proscenium stage, fly gallery, dressing rooms, loading dock, ticket office, concessions and an exterior entrance. Most of these are already provided.

The key benefit to providing the proposed auditorium in the convention center is meeting existing clients’ expanding needs, increasing competitiveness in marketplace, increasing exhibition space during assemblies, giving the community a focal point for entertainment and the arts and extending the stays of visitors to attend events.

Hamilton provided a calendar of entertainment that the auditorium and new convention center could draw to Ocean City that included traveling Broadway shows such as Cats and Les Miserables. Other events were Cirque Ziva, which is a smaller version of Cirque de Soleil, and the Magic of the Masters, a a masters of illusion show.

The total auditorium project budget comes to $14 million. The cost estimate includes fly galleries, loft grids and catwalks that total $1 million of the cost.

“This is the difference between having a high school stage and having a real stage,” McGean said. “These are structural elements that have to be done while the stage is being constructed.”

During the public hearing this week at City Hall, Citizens For Ocean City spokesman Joe Groves wanted to clarify a misconception he has received from those he has spoken with. He said the food and beverage food tax is dedicated to improve and maintain the convention center and the expansion of the convention center will not create a new tax. He reminded the room that when the convention center was first expanded in 1997 the Mayor and City Council at that time had first voted to approve the expansion in a 4-3 vote, which was not good enough.

“They went back to the drawing board and when they finally decided to expand it was a 7 to 0 vote,” Groves said. “I would ask each and every one of you to do what’s best for this town … Ocean City needs to become a town more than just going to the beach. We have to be a town that’s for the arts, we have to be a town that is for the restaurants, the condos, the hotels, we have to be a town for everybody and this gives a great opportunity to do that, and I would ask each and every one of you to stand up, be counted and vote 7 to 0 in favor for this.”

Planning and Zoning Commission member Peck Miller spoke on behalf of the Ocean City Cultural Arts Advisory Board, as well as read over 20 names representing leading businesses in Ocean City that were all in favor of a performing arts center in the convention center. He also read a letter from the board in support of continuing the half percent food and beverage tax to renovate the convention center.

“This new amenity for Ocean City adds yet another reason for visitors to come to town, eat and perhaps stay longer during the high season, as well as the second season,” Miller read. “Our town is fortunate to be one of the few municipalities to have the dedicated funding mechanism in place which allows modernization update for our economic engine of Ocean City, the Roland E. Powell Convention Center.”

Stephen Decatur High School drama teacher Gwen Lehman stated that the school’s auditorium is the one and only in northern Worcester County. Decatur’s drama program books at least 8,000 seats a year and produces one show at least 16 times.

“It is a building that is utilized seven days a week, pretty much night and day,” Lehman said. “We have constant requests for the use of our auditorium and it becomes a bit problematic … There are a lot of outside groups that request to use the auditorium on a regular basis and it is difficult to juggle time to allow people to utilize that facility.”

Clarion Hotel owner Dr. Leonard Berger also spoke in favor of phase two of construction at the convention center.

“Here is the opportunity to expand the horizon of Ocean City with a cultural arts center with the expansion of the convention center,” Dr. Berger said. “This is a no brainer … to have a place to have a group of people in an auditorium with first-class sound, first-class lighting, a first-class facility for a first-class town — Ocean City.”

Councilman Doug Cymek said by having heard “little to no opposition” he made the motion to accept all three goals presented including moving forward into phase two of the convention center’s re-construction.

“Sitting up here for five years you’re proud of every vote,” Councilwoman Mary Knight said. “Some are more difficult than other ones … but we are becoming a town for everybody, with the vote for the Art League two months ago and now with this vote we will become a town for everybody. So in my career of five years up here this has to be one of my proudest votes.”

Councilman Joe Hall agreed that Ocean City has reached the point to enter into a new phase.

“This has been the year for the arts in this town,” he said. “The process has been worth it because the final product will be much better from where we started.”

Councilwoman Margaret Pillas admitted that in the past she has voted against an auditorium in the convention center but since then problems have been resolved.

“What really changed my mind was the input I got from the community over the last couple of weeks,” she said. “The other part I like about it is our community spirit and our art culture is coming forward … this is something that has changed over the last couple years and that is because we are getting a lot more input over the last couple of years, and I think the 4-3 vote has brought that out, your voices are being heard.”

As Council President Jim Hall received a unanimous vote to approve phase two of construction on the convention center, the council received a standing ovation.

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