Howard County approves $137M arts center in Columbia

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews new Columbia arts center (Part 1)

The Howard County Council this week approved $137 million in funding for a new arts center to be built in Columbia, Maryland, by the end of 2024.

The facility includes a new Toby’s Dinner Theatre, black-box children’s theater, rooftop performance space and classrooms for the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts.

Toby’s Dinner Theatre owner Toby Orenstein told WTOP the project fulfills the dream of Howard County developer Jim Rouse, adding that County Executive Calvin Ball was instrumental in getting approval: “[He] has been coming to my theater since he was 12, and he worked very hard to find a way for it to happen.”

For theater enthusiasts in the area, it’s a hard-fought victory for the arts.

“Toby’s has represented the arts and arts education for over 40 years in Howard County, so a cultural arts center is a long time coming,” associate producer Mark Minnick told WTOP. “To not have a place that represents the arts and culture was something missing. … The location is prime, the need is prime, and it’s about time.”

Did the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic inspire lawmakers to see the cultural light?

“Everybody realized the importance of the arts, especially right now, it’s needed more than ever,” Minnick said. “When this pandemic is over, how exciting to have this new wonderful location where we can come together, create, build and educate the youth.”

The $137 million price tag includes $64 million in federal tax credits for affordable housing, $63 million in general obligation bonds and $10 million in tax increment financing subsidy bonds to build a parking garage, according to Business Monthly.

“It’s being built on my land,” Orenstein said. “We’re selling our land to a developer. It will be built on the very land we’re on. We’ve been trying to do this for over 10 years.”

Construction is slated to begin in the spring.

“It looks to be 18 to 24 months for the first phase, which will be the new Toby’s Dinner Theatre,” Minnick said. “After that … it’s a good four-to-five-year project.”

The current dinner theater will remain open until the new building is complete.

“As soon as [the new space] is built, the Toby’s portion will be able to move over to the new facility and they will knock down the old Toby’s,” Orenstein said. “The new Toby’s will face the street and be right on the curbside.”

The new arts center joins Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia Mall and the Columbia Association Ice Rink to create a cultural hot spot just 21 miles southwest of Baltimore.

“When Jim Rouse got here, this was all farmland,” Orenstein said. “He was coming in with such innovative thoughts. … He took an area that was a little bleak and made it into a beautiful city. … Jim would be proud to see what’s going on in Columbia.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews new Columbia arts center (Part 2)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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