Local Committee Has Grand Plan For The Arts

BERLIN – At least two and perhaps three performing arts venues will be needed to turn Worcester County into an arts destination.

"It’s a tremendous idea. It’s probably the only way they’re going to work, if there’s more than one," Performing Arts Center Committee advisor Peck Miller said.

Plans call for a smaller venue in the Berlin area, currently proposed for the Cannery building along Route 113, a mid-sized venue at the Ocean City Convention Center and a large performance center similar to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. elsewhere in the northern part of the county.

"Three could easily work in Worcester County because they are so different," said Worcester County Tourism Director Lisa Challenger, a member of the research committee.

Two studies have been conducted, according to Miller, both concluding that performing arts centers would be economically viable in Worcester County. Visitors and locals need more to do in the off-season, he said.

"Not only was there a need, there was probably a need for three, and we’re probably 10 years behind doing it," Miller said.

Michael Day, coordinator of Berlin’s Main Street Program and a committee member, is attending the National Main Street conference this week. He said the arts has been broached at the conference.

"I’ve heard several times from several different speakers about the economic engine of a performing arts center or theater," he said.

Research on similar venues in the region has revealed that multiple performing spaces would create a destination and maximize the return.

"It’s often that big variety that fills the place on a daily basis," Challenger said. "Right now the priority is the Berlin site and then the Ocean City property. The third one would have to be a private developer. That may take awhile."

"More than one facility makes them all better," said Miller.

The Berlin performing arts center could host its first performance as early as January 2010, said Challenger. The Berlin venue would concentrate on smaller, community-based performances from local theater groups, dance troupes and musicians as well as host outside performers.

"The small one in Berlin is supported and would be loved by the community," said Day.

The Ocean City Convention Center performing arts stage would be designed to host performers that could attract tourists and bus tours.

"That one would be a whole different scale, size, and draw a whole different clientele," Miller said.

The large venue will come later. The committee envisions a large performing venue among a complex of hotels, restaurants and even a water park.

"It’s ambitious but not unrealistic. It would be corporately owned," Miller said.

The Berlin Performing Arts Center initiative hopes to go before the County Commissioners this month to make a case for county funding to start on the Berlin center.

"If we could get some funding from the county, we could really move quickly on this site and project," Challenger said.

Architects have already studied the Cannery building and made preliminary renderings of the renovations needed to turn it into a performing arts center. The cost should be $2.5 million. Organizers are hoping for $200,000 from the county to get started and would also pursue grant funding and private donations.

"If the commissioners get behind this, it’s doable," Day said.

Money will be scarce, this budget time, with Maryland’s deficit, and organizers may have a difficult time convincing county elected officials not to postpone their contribution.

"I don’t think that any of the County Commissioners doubt the need. I think they are concerned about the school construction. There’s a lot of it and it’s expensive," Challenger said. "It’s going to be a tough year to get funding."

The performing arts centers would add value and options to the resort and make the county a more desirable place to live, said Miller, a Realtor who once owned a restaurant and watersports business in Ocean City.

"We are a very, very viable vacation and tourist location. In my opinion, a performing arts center or centers are much more conducive to an area to bring in more money than something like slots which has social repercussions," said Miller, a member of the Ocean City Planning Commission.

Challenger agreed, saying, "People are looking for these kinds of amenities and assets in the community."

The local performing arts community has scrambled to find places to perform and would be quick to take advantage of a county stage.

"I’ve written several plays in the last two years," said Ned McIntosh, a committee member and author of the musicals "Golden Slippers," and "Satchmo and Hoagy." "We had a very difficult time finding venues."

The best stage, at Stephen Decatur High School, is heavily used by school events and not often available to outside groups, and middle and elementary schools are too small.

"The need is for a place to perform that is professional in its design with permanent seating," said McIntosh, a member of the Performing Arts Center Research Committee. "The performing arts center could also be the site of arts education for local children."

According to Miller, the time is now to enrich the arts in this community.

"We have yet to find a negative about performing arts centers, that’s for sure," Miller said. "It’s time. We need to do this."