t's been a rough couple weeks for some of our most beloved Columbia institutions. So far this summer, we learned about the upcoming closing of Clyde's (which has been a fixture at the Lake since 1975) and possible end to The Symphony of Lights vehicle parade (operating since 1994). This week, I want to turn our attention to Toby's Dinner Theater (opened in 1979), which is currently in the midst of its own battle for its future as its fate currently rests in the hands of our County Council. The site of Toby's Dinner Theater is slated to be developed into the New Cultural Center (NCC), set to be a vital piece of the master plan to develop Downtown Columbia into an artistic and cultural destination while providing critical affordable housing in our community. But, rather than spell the end of yet another beloved Columbia institution, this development project, if funding is approved, would ensure that Toby's Dinner Theater and sister organization the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts (CCTA) have a home in Downtown Columbia for decades to come. In fact, this project would fulfill a lifelong dream for Toby Orenstein, who I was privileged enough to speak to earlier this week.
You don't need me to tell you about Toby Orenstein. She is a larger-than-life legend in Columbia whose namesake theater has been entertaining us all 8 times a week for over 40 years with performances of Broadway classics and original musicals as we feast upon a full buffet that includes a carving station and 25-item salad bar. And while she may be most closely associated with her dinner theater, Toby's true passion is the educational arts programming of CCTA. I was originally supposed to chat with Hal Orenstein - Toby's husband of 60 years - but as soon as the topic of CCTA came up, Toby interjected herself into the conversation. She enthusiastically told me all about the community program she has created over her career to educate and inspire the children of Howard County, Baltimore, and surrounding areas; especially lower-income youth and children with special needs.
Amazingly, Toby began her career as a mentee to Eleanor freaking Roosevelt (!!!) as an arts educator in the human rights champion and influential first lady's "All Day Neighborhood School Project," a program designed to help under-served Harlem youth learn through the arts. Inspired by her work on this program and at the behest of Jim Rouse, Toby founded CCTA in 1972 to bring an interactive approach towards teaching performance arts to children in Columbia. For over 48 years, CCTA has been dedicated to making arts programs available and accessible to as many members of the community as possible with an emphasis on teaching and nurturing our children regardless of gender, race, religion, ability, age, or socioeconomic status. These programs include Jackie Robinson field trips, children drama classes, free after-school workshops, summer camps, a nationally-recognized Teen professional theater group, and the longstanding "The Young Columbians" theater troupe (more on them at the end of this article).
The New Cultural Center
While Toby's Dinner Theater has operated out of its singular location since 1979, CCTA has never had a permanent home. That is why the Orensteins have been
working tirelessly over the past decade to fulfill their vision of bringing their two entities under the same roof through establishment of a regional visual and performing arts hub that ensures the cherished organizations continue well into the future.
The plans for the NCC include a new state of the art two level 350-person dinner theater that would maintain the theater-in-the-round layout of today's Toby that provides each guest with a dynamic interactive experience and a great view of the stage. New to Toby's would be second level, integrated elevator, enlarged back-stage area, and additional accessible seating. The adjourning spaces would be occupied by CCTA and Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks. It would include classrooms, studios, a drama center, galleries, two black-box theaters including a children's theater, a cafe, and a huge rooftop garden overlooking Merriweather Post Pavilion and Symphony Woods with space for outdoor performances and private events. Above the cultural amenities would sit a multi-family residential unit with 193 units, 50% of which would be affordable. Construction would occur in phases to ensure that there would not be an interruption in Toby performances. Only after the new Toby's theater is built and occupied will demolition of the existing structure occur, allowing the rest of the development to be completed. Planning and construction would take about 4 years.
The complexities, finances, and timing of this project are best detailed in this excellent Baltimore Sun article from June 10, 2020 What you need to know about Howard's new cultural center that's poised to be built in downtown Columbia. Please, read this. It does an excellent job explaining the intricacies and history of this project.
Under the NCC plan, Toby's Dinner Theater and the CCTA would combine into a single entity and become the principal tenant of the NCC. As a single entity, the dinner theater revenue would help support and expand CCTA's already impressive programming and rent payments would be made to the County. The County would use this new source of rental revenue to make the debt service payments for the general obligation bonds they would issue to finance the County's portion of the project. Cash flows projections that the County has performed show that over the next 30 years, the County's total operating revenue projected to be earned from the art center would exceed debt service payments by $11 to $22 million. The County would only be responsible for a portion of the $137 million project because $64 million is covered by affordable housing tax credits that have already been secured from the State of Maryland and the Federal government. Tax revenue generated from the project would support the public education of the students residing in the building and would help finance the new elementary school planned for Downtown Columbia.
In the Hands of the County Council
The current status is that the County Council deferred making a decision on this project when they approved the FY21 Budget on May 27, instead putting the $63 million of County funding needed for the project in a contingency account that requires further Council approval to be released. After years of collaboration, negotiations, and complex financial arrangements across many key stakeholders and organizations, the final hurdle standing in the way of this project breaking ground is a final sign off from the Council. Councilmembers Christiana Rigby and Opel Jones are supportive of the project while members Deb Jung, David Yungmann, and Liz Walsh remain on the fence and require more time to make their decision.
That decision must come quickly because the $63 million of tax credit financing would be jeopardized unless funding is approved and the construction begins by Spring 2021. In other words, if this doesn't happen now, it might never happen. It also must be noted that the housing and cultural center are inextricably linked. Without funding for the NCC, the housing component cannot proceed, and likewise, the cultural center cannot proceed without the housing component.
To assist in the decision-making process, the Columbia Downtown Housing Corporation is convening a small group of the key stakeholders for a series of workshops this summer to address issues related to the project with the goal of keeping the project on schedule and reaching a consensus so that the Council will approve releasing the contingency funding in the Fall. These meetings are open to the public and are scheduled for July 16, July 30, and August 11.
The Howard County Housing Commission estimates that Howard County has a housing shortage of 5,000 units for County residents with household income less than $50,000. Howard County has been no exception to the housing crisis in America. Now, that crisis is becoming a catastrophe as rent payment pile up for millions of unemployed Americans. Approving this project (and others to follow) would demonstrate Howard County's commitment to start addressing our own housing problem.
Affordable housing allows people from different economic backgrounds to share in the prosperity of affluent areas like ours - gaining access to great schools, jobs, and opportunities, which helps create a path for upwards economic mobility. Segregated neighborhoods and racial inequalities are a byproduct of prosperous areas like ours not having enough housing options that are accessible to people of all income levels and backgrounds. That is why many individuals who support social justice and economic equality recognize the importance of housing and density projects like the New Cultural Center.
The New Cultural Center would ensure a beloved institution remains in Columbia long into the future, enrich the vibrancy of Columbia's downtown, and provide more housing opportunities for our community. CCTA's "Young Columbians" group celebrated their 45th anniversary last month with a new song, "Coming Together" which celebrates Jim Rouse's desire to bring people together, unite society, foster creativity,and live as one; very much like the New Cultural Center would help us do.
The song begins with a quote from Rouse, as narrated by his famous grandson, Edward Norton.
“I had a hunch. The hope was to produce a community among people… a release of creativity among people who felt a sense of support from one another…that it would be a freer society and that there would be the development of a much greater sense of tolerance, more openness, more trust, more freedom, and more creativity…”
James W. Rouse, Creator and Developer of Columbia, Maryland