Reston Spring

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Thursday, July 7, 2022

LTE: Inadequacy of RCC "Feasibility Study" for Reston Performing Arts Center and Its Costs

 The following is a letter to the editor of the Reston Patch that was published on July 6, 2022.

Dear Editor,

The Reston Community Center’s (RCC’s) consultant working on a “feasibility study” for a visual and performing arts center (VPAC) in Reston reported its findings to the community on June 13. The results were less than satisfactory although I blame RCC and the county for this, not the contractor.

Most basically, the presentation and viewgraphs were not about “feasibility” nor was it a “study.” The “study” was a 31-page PowerPoint presentation with 8-pages of non-substantive introduction at the front end. The “study” covers only a design concept and a limited construction cost projection, nothing on operating costs or economic benefits. It said nothing about market demand beyond the input of about two dozen regular participants in the community engagement meetings, and it seemed to rely on a separate pre-pandemic market survey to justify its limited positive results.

So what does a feasibility study normally incorporate? Here are the topics identified in the table of contents from one feasibility study I reviewed:
  • demographic & socioeconomic analysis,
  • local and regional facility analysis,
  • local & regional group interviews,
  • concept (covered) & location recommendations (given), and
  • financial & economic analysis including:
    • preliminary construction cost (addressed)
    • operating projections & subsidies
    • funding options
    • economic benefit.
At RCC’s suggestion, I asked Fairfax County’s DPWES [Department of Pubic Works and Environmental Studies] —which supported the VPAC “feasibility study”—for more details last week. Other than an acknowledgement of my request, no response yet. We are a long way from a thorough feasibility study that helps us make a wise decision about whether to proceed and, if we do, how.

Meanwhile, the consultant’s presentation provided a good look at a possible design for a Reston VPAC. Most importantly, while it looked at a possible 700-seat theater — a “moderate” size theater — it could not reasonably fit it into the small space proffered by Boston Properties. It proposes a 500-seat theater with a large stage and orchestra pit and notes, “This house capacity may require adding more performance dates.” Or what?

While the design concept is thorough, only one page is devoted to the cost of the proposed VPAC. That estimated cost is $58 million in current dollars (for a 57,000 GSF VPAC—more than $1,000/GSF) or $81.4 million in 2030. The debt service on that 2030 cost over a 30-year period financing by county industrial bonds would make the total construction cost $136 million.

And that doesn’t cover operating losses, and not-for-profit theaters such as the Reston VPAC routinely cover only about 40% of their operating costs through operating revenues (tickets, concessions, etc.). Based on the pro forma financial analysis in one theater feasibility study I reviewed, it suggests that $500-$600 thousand annually, escalating with inflation, would need to be added to break even. That money must come from public or private sources. And that puts the Reston special tax district (STD#5) back into play whether as the primary source or a supplement to business and arts group giving. There is no indication yet from the county that it won’t put the burden on Reston alone.

It appears the total annual cost of building and operating a Reston VPAC in 2030 will be about $5.3 million, more in the ensuing years. Reston residents and businesses, all part of STD#5, should not be asked to carry that burden. A small model I made of the possible costs to Reston STD#5 taxpayers (see below), if the burden is placed on us, is that the revenue shortfall in 2030 would require RCC to increase the STD#5 tax rate from $.047 to $.062 per $100 valuation — a 31% tax rate hike — if (a) RCC were to sustain its current activities and (b) there were no contributions from elsewhere.

I am certain that I don’t want to spend the extra money each year on taxes to have a Reston VPAC built and operated on the Reston community’s dime, and I doubt that many of your readers do either. This is especially true when Reston has so many more important needs, not just amenities, such as schools, urban parks, and a renewed regional library. The county, specifically Supervisor [Walter] Alcorn who has now taken control of the VPAC initiative, needs to oversee a substantial amount of additional research and analysis on the value of a VPAC, not to mention extensive consulting with the community, before proceeding with it at all. We’ll see whether he ultimately believes it’s worth the county’s investment. It’s not worth Reston’s.

Terry Maynard

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