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Bringing the Arts to Hagerstown

August 10, 2000

Bringing the Arts to Hagerstown

By KATE COLEMAN / staff writer


Imagine downtown Hagerstown a few years from now ...

A little girl skips out of a building on Potomac Street, ballet shoes peeking out of her backpack. She joins her brother, who is carrying a sketchbook with drawings he made in his art class.

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Mom finishes her weekly volunteer session in the Maryland Symphony Orchestra's music library. She meets the kids next door in the courtyard of The Maryland Theatre, and the trio walks down the street to meet Dad, who is looking at the menu at a nearby sidewalk cafe.

He's enjoying the summer evening and chatting with neighbors who are having dinner before they head to a new 300-seat theater to catch a community theater group's latest offering.

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On their way to the show, the neighbors stop at the art gallery on Potomac Street. A large painting they noticed through the window would work well in their dining room. They've been looking for something by a local artist.

After the show, the couple joins friends for a drink and some music at another Potomac Street restaurant. They chat with friends, who tell them they'll see them again tomorrow at their grandchildren's ballet recital at The Maryland Theatre.

Imagine that.

Can you? In downtown Hagerstown?

Is an arts and entertainment district just a dreamer's dream?

There are people who believe that a center for the arts can become a reality and they are working to make it happen.

James G. "Jim" Pierne, president and CEO of Farmers & Merchants Bank and Trust, chairs a Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce committee that is proposing the project.

Plans drawn up by the committee show a center that would incorporate The Maryland Theatre and three buildings around it on the first block of South Potomac Street.

One, called the Edison apartments, now houses the offices of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra on its ground floor. Next to that is the former Henry's Theater.

Under the committee's proposal, the theater's lobby would be enlarged, the three-story building south of the theater's courtyard would be demolished and two buildings just north of the theater would be renovated.

Plans call for the area to be filled with art galleries, dance studios, rehearsal rooms and a small theater, as well as offices and meeting rooms.

The next step is to come up with answers to two key questions, Pierne said. How will the visual and performing arts center - with an estimated price tag of $10 million - be funded? And what will the organizational structure of the center be?

The chamber committee is looking for answers to those questions, one "step at a time," Pierne said.

He expects that funding from government and private sources is possible. He said he is "very encouraged" by expressions of support from Hagerstown, Washington County and the delegation to the General Assembly.

"I think the funding is there," he said.

Local arts organizations, which have been part of the planning process, will continue their involvement.

"It's so exciting to me," said Barbara Spicher, executive director of the Washington County Arts Council. She said she is particularly encouraged that the project is being developed by the business community rather than as a result of the arts community clamoring for what it needs.

And there are needs. The Washington County Arts Council Gallery has been at 41 S. Potomac St. for about three and a half years. It outgrew its original space on Franklin Street a couple of years after it opened.

More space still is needed for storage and art exhibits. If half the gallery is devoted to a featured artist, there's not much room left for a variety of work by artists in different styles.

"We get calls every day from parents looking for educational opportunities for their children," Spicher said, but there is no room for classes.

The council sponsors an annual summer art camp at Doub's Woods Park for about 50 kids. Spicher said she could have filled the camp three times.

"There's a need."

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra also has needs for storage space, among other things.

The symphony offices on South Potomac Street have no library for the orchestra's music, said Elaine Braun, MSO's director of operations. Music stands, chairs, tympani and xylophone are stashed in the hallway.

In addition, the symphony has no direct indoor access to The Maryland Theatre for performances. Chairs and music stands have to be carried through the courtyard into the theater, down the aisles and up on the stage, Braun said.

There are no rooms suitable for small rehearsals or auditions. Last year, auditions were held in two Four Points Hotel conference rooms. There were logistical problems in keeping the music from disturbing other hotel patrons as well as blocking off the sound of the hotel from the musicians. "This is all about sound," Braun said.

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