Lorton Arts Center, High School Approved

Lorton Arts Center, High School Approved

<bt>In the words of Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), "Monday was an exciting day for both Fairfax County and the Mount Vernon District on two fronts."

His reference was to the actions of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on May 5, which gave unanimous approval to two elements for the revitalization of the former Lorton prison site now known as Laurel Hill. One will establish a multifaceted arts center and the other an innovative approach to constructing a new high school.

"The approval of the new arts center at Laurel Hill is something we have wanted and needed for as long as I've been on the Board of Supervisors," Hyland said. "It will bring not only art capabilities to this part of the county but also a facility for the performing arts. And it will do this much sooner than would have happened if it were a county project."

Under the aegis of the Lorton Arts Foundation Inc., the new arts center will occupy the 22-building, 41.4-acre site, within the prison formerly known as the Lorton Women's Workhouse. It was the location where suffragists were imprisoned for protesting outside the White House in 1917. It is also one of the most infamous areas within the former District of Columbia correctional compound.

Organized in October 2001 as a Virginia nonprofit corporation, the Foundation stated its mission "to promote and support the arts in Lorton, Fairfax and neighboring counties, and the commonwealth of Virginia. A primary goal of that mission is to preserve, renovate and reuse the Lorton Complex's Workhouse facilities as a unique and interesting arts campus."

IN ORDER to accomplish that goal, the Foundation proposes to transform its portion of the prison "into a vibrant, creative complex which would include ... art studios and galleries, restaurants, community events, heritage museums, indoor and outdoor performance facilities, as well as recreation and entertainment for residents and artists. The objective ... will be to become a premier platform for presenting the best of regional culture and history."

The proposal to the Board of Supervisors read in part, "In order to fulfill this vision ... the Foundation proposes to lease the Workhouse property for $1 per year under a long-term, 99-year lease with subsequent renewals. ... The Foundation will raise the funds necessary for construction, promotion and operation of the new Workhouse."

The 22 buildings within the Workhouse complex account for approximately 70,000 square feet. Some may be suitable for renovation, and others may need to be demolished and reconstructed. That determination is under the evaluation of a task force appointed by the Board of Supervisors.

ACCORDING TO Tina Leone, Foundation executive director, cost of demolition and reconstruction has been estimated at $10 to $12 million. "We hope to preserve as many buildings as possible. They are very conducive to artistic work areas," she said at the time of the Foundation's original presentation.

"We envision the final product as a combination of Torpedo Factory, Wolf Trap, cultural center and museum all wrapped in one. It will be a facility for all types of artists and one that can be enjoyed by the general public as well," Leone said.

The Foundation is planning to fund the initial years of development and operations through grant awards and donations from individuals, agencies, corporations, and other art organizations and foundations. Total funds needed are estimated to be approximately $9 million for the first couple of years. The complex is projected to become self-sustaining by the end of 2006, according to the Foundation.

"The second event at this week's Board of Supervisors' meeting was the approval of the new south county high school that also sets a precedent that I hope will be followed in the future," Hyland said. "The partnership of private and public development moved up the time schedule considerably and also enabled us to build the high school without county funds or a bond issue."

THE NEW $62 MILLION school will be built under a joint partnership with KSI/Clark Construction. It will pay the county $18.2 million for 46 acres and has agreed to build approximately 440 units of assisted-living housing.

Proceeds from the land sale will be used by the county to liquidate the debt on the school. This will enable the new school to be operational by 2005, nearly three years ahead of the original projection.

The 2,400-acre correctional complex was acquired from the federal government in 2002 through a combination $4.2 million sale and land swap designed to preserve open space in the Meadowood area and revitalize the decaying Lorton site. In addition to the arts center and new high school, other development plans call for athletic fields, a housing complex, other tourist attractions, and vast areas of open space for recreational purposes.